Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Sergei (and Fedor) Bondarchuk's And Quiet Flows the Don - Тихий Дон (1992)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Television director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Cast: Rupert Everett, Delphine Forest, F. Murray Abraham, Ben Gazzara, Lorenzo Amato, Natal'ia Andreichenko, Mikhail Baskov, Aleksandr Bespalis, Sergei Bondarchuk, Alena Bondarchuk
7 episodes

Тихий Дон (1992-2006)

The four-volume Cossack saga that brought Mikhail Sholokhov recognition as a classic of Soviet literature and world-wide fame when it became known in the English-speaking world as And Quiet Flows the Don, caused controversies from the days when its first volume was published in serialized form in 1928. Yet, neither the disputes surrounding Sholokhov's authorship [1] nor his firm integration into the Communist establishment from Stalin to Brezhnev, neither his political kowtowing nor his betrayal of the unwritten writer's code of honor when he rudely attacked dissidents from a Party tribune could seriously harm the status of And Quiet Flows the Don as arguably the most weighty foundation epic of Soviet civilization. And a popular epic it was: its blend of passionate love story and Civil War chronicle appealed to millions of readers, while the author's command of Russian, including his rich array of regionalisms, impressed even skeptical critics.

Тихий Дон (1992-2006)

Not surprisingly, Soviet cinema showed an interest in Sholokhov's epic even before it was finished, resulting in a black-and-white adaptation of the first volume in 1930. By the late 1940s, when all four parts were finally completed, plans for a new screen adaptation [2] were aborted, primarily due to the war, but also because of the complexities of the narrative that did not sit well with some hacks in the period of “conflictlessness.” It took the managerial skills and muscular direction of Sergei Gerasimov finally to pull off a three-part screen version in 1957/58. That five-and-a-half hour long spectacle seemed to be the non-plus-ultra And Quiet Flows the Don, after which no other cinematic treatment of the novel was necessary or desirable. [3] Yet, at the most unlikely moment, when Soviet civilization was disintegrating and its values and historical legitimacy waning, another attempt was made to transfer the novel both to television and widescreen.

Тихий Дон (1992-2006)

The making of the third And Quiet Flows the Don in 1990-92 and its dramatic aftermath was a veritable saga itself. The director, who had gained world recognition for stemming projects of similar largesse before, encountered one insurmountable obstacle after another. Already in the late 1980s, when Bondarchuk made first steps toward the realization of his long-harbored dream, the atmosphere in the Soviet Union was far from welcoming to such an endeavor. Sholokhov's pedestal, his 1965 Nobel Prize notwithstanding, was no longer unshakeable, and the formerly taboo discussion of his alleged plagiarism of And Quiet Flows the Don began to spill over into perestroika media. Bondarchuk himself was no more untouchable either: the furious ad hominem attacks at the Fifth Filmmakers' Congress in 1986 had left him hurt, cutting down his influence considerably.[3a] On a practical level, his plan simultaneously to helm a twenty-part television mini-series and a full-length feature version of And Quiet Flows the Don for international release seemed too heavy to stem during an increasingly money-conscious period of the Soviet film industry, not to mention how ideologically out of touch it was with its time. But after the lackluster reception of his 1985 adaptation of Boris Godunov, and with Soviet cinema in deepening decline and disorientation, the director was desperate to get a new production moving. Bondarchuk agreed to reduce the television mini-series to ten parts instead of twenty, as well as to casting foreign stars in the lead roles in order to make the film marketable for the West. He, if anybody, had no reason to be frightened of these conditions in light of his experience on the international arena starting in the 1950s, having successfully worked with foreign producers such as Dino de Laurentiis and eliciting first-rate performances from Western stars such as Rod Steiger in Waterloo (1970). In hindsight, however, the enormous risk of putting British and French performers in Cossack garb seems painfully obvious: it is one thing to have an international cast embody, say, Russian urban revolutionaries and intellectuals as in David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965), or as members of the cultured 19th-century upper class as in King Vidor's War and Peace (1956), but quite another to entrust Western mimes with roles of peasants in a very peculiar socio-cultural context such as the world of Don Cossacks.

Тихий Дон (1992-2006)

Then, there was bad luck, plain and simple: on the first day of shooting—19 August 1991, the beginning of the attempt by Party hard-liners to remove Gorbachev from power—tanks stopped the crews' cars outside of Moscow. Foreign actors who had been cast for important roles did not show up and had to be replaced within a few days. Finally, after a year of intensive shooting in the Don region and a raw cut executed by Bondarchuk himself. Ever since Iosif Stalin bestowed in 1952 upon Sergei Bondarchuk the highest available honorable title in film and theater, People's Artist of the USSR, at the unprecedented age of 32, his reputation among rank-and-file Soviet viewers and patriotic critics was that of a “movie general” (general ot kino), respected both for his artistic achievements and as a leadership figure. Bondarchuk was perhaps the only international star of Soviet cinema, initially after the world-wide success of Sergei Iutkevich's Othello (1955) and of Bondarchuk's own Fate of a Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1959), followed by a lead in Roberto Rossellini's It Was Night in Rome (1960), and topped by directing the seven-hour mega-production of War and Peace (Voina i mir, 1967), for which he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. Bondarchuk embodied a rare combination of enjoying world-wide fame and displaying unconditional loyalty to the Soviet cause, a blend that made him a darling of the USSR establishment. Khrushchev, Furtseva, and later Brezhnev were even willing to forgive him some caprices, such as retaining his sizeable hard currency honorarium for directing Waterloo. Not surprisingly, the liberal intelligentsia disliked Bondarchuk for selling out to the Communist system, especially in the late 1970s, when he agreed to make two propaganda howlers from John Reed's books. At that point, many believed that Bondarchuk had effectively lost his artistic potential as a director, even though a number of first-rate performances as an actor served as reminders of his outstanding talent.

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Cinematryoshka: Kira Muratova's feminine, not feminist, movies

She was born 80 years ago, on November 5, 1934, in the city of Soroca in present-day Moldova. Young Kira Muratova studied in Moscow, but most of her later life was spent working in Odessa. Her debut as a filmmaker took place in 1962 with "By the Step Ravine" movie.

In her early films Muratova’s most impressive characters are female, all of them completely unadorned: a party worker, a divorced mother, an unmarried young lady... Unlike Vladimir Menshov in his Oscar-winning movie “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” Kira Muratova makes no attempt to combine the three strands into one and create a kind of Soviet “wonder woman”. Perhaps it is because of this reluctance to idealize her Soviet characters that Muratova’s movies were not shown for a long time. “Brief Encounters” in 1967 was her third film. Provincial girl Nadia meets geologist Maxim, played by the famous Russian poet and singer Vladimir Vysotsky. She works in a tea-house, while he has an exciting job, a “romantic” disposition, and a guitar. The girl naturally falls in love. When the time comes for him to leave, he reassures her and seemingly invites her to join him. She takes it all to heart and goes with him on his expedition, not knowing that Maxim already has a wife — Valentina (played by the director herself). Valentina works for a regional committee, signs papers, gives lectures, and sees her husband only in snatches in between expeditions. They are forever breaking up and getting back together. Each time Valentina forgives him. Nadia appears in their home in the guise of a housemaid from the local village. She lays the table — then leaves.

Muratova does not like it when people label her films as feminist, and for a while she did not even believethat such a genre existed. “I was puzzled to begin with. I thought: what nonsense, what does it mean ‘female' director’? A person either has talent or doesn't. That's the skeptical attitude I took with me to Créteil in France, where I was surprised to see that female cinema actually exists. It’s terribly cynical and violent. Films by embittered slaves made good who spit in the face of everything stored up and seething inside them. I was amazed. And have since come to recognize the existence of tigers, jellyfish, spiders — and women’s cinema.”

Nevertheless, her movies do have a certain “feminine” outlook, a compassionate desire to understand others. They are not family dramas or production-line soap operas. In her films life is far more complicated, yet at the same time simpler than it seems. Such is her paradox.

Her 1989 film “The Asthenic Syndrome” won an award at the Berlin Film Festival, although few understood it back home in the Soviet Union. It was described as a “diagnosis of Soviet Man,” yet there was no trace of politics. The heroine of the first part is a female doctor who, distraught at the death of her husband, wanders the streets like a lunatic. The hero of the second part is a teacher who has lost all interest in life. The doctor and the teacher represent civilization and basic social institutions, yet both are tired and broken. At the end of the film, to the sound of his wailing female companion, the hero loses consciousness and is carried away by a subway train into the unknown. The mix of the surreal with the mundane is another paradox. Once again Muratova distanced herself from descriptions of the film as a social, time-bound critique of the collapsing Soviet Union.The scenes of the film do not appear to be logically ordered, and the characters speak at random. The strange effect is achieved by cutting and editing: “I love montage, it’s my favorite pastime. I couldn’t live without the cutting room,” Muratova said.

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Leviathan director Andrei Zvyagintsev: ‘Living in Russia is like being in a minefield’

Andrei Zvyagintsev in Colorado Springs on 30 October 2014.
 Andrei Zvyagintsev in Colorado Springs on 30 October 2014. Photograph: James Chance/Chance Multimedia

Andrei Zvyagintsev has a reputation for being polite but tight-lipped. Understandably. At Cannes this year, he won an award for the most searing attack on the current Russian political system ever shot. Yet, he said at the time, his aim was “certainly not to confront power”. Yes, Leviathan shows ordinary Russians crushed beneath a fiendishly corrupt bureaucracy. But it was inspired by a case in the US, he said, and is intended as a universal parable.

I arrive on a chilly autumn afternoon at the sleek Moscow offices of his producer, expecting more of the same mild-mannered obfuscation. An expression of faint alarm greets me as I’m introduced as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent.

“Oh, so you mainly write about politics?” he asks, somewhat nervously.

But as soon as we start to speak, it’s as if a dam has broken. Carefully measured allegory is swapped for blunt straight-talking. He pauses only once in 90 minutes – to take a phone call from a friend whose wife is ill. He uses an iPhone 4, which, by the standards of the Moscow beau monde, is the equivalent of packing an old Nokia brick.

In the days before our meeting, the Russian film board had – to widespread amazement – nominated Leviathan as the national entry for the foreign language Oscar, despite its manifestly not promoting a patriotic agenda, as per government policy. Was he surprised by the move? A soliloquy follows about the difficulty of building a career in modern-day Russia. He speaks quietly, with consideration – and unmistakable anger.

“It’s like being in a minefield, this is the feeling you live with here. It’s very hard to build any kind of prospects – in life, in your profession, in your career – if you are not plugged in to the values of the system. It’s a stupid construction of society, and unfortunately the eternal curse of our territory. The ideas of the rule of law, of equal rights are hardly discussed here. There is discussion in society, but it’s pointless. I have a feeling of the absolute futility of pretending to the right to have a say in any situation. I’ve turned 50 and I’ve never voted in my life. Because I’m absolutely certain that in our system it’s a completely pointless step.”

He takes a breath. “So to answer your question: yes, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Leviathan is about what an individual can do faced with the might of a monstrous state. Aleksei Serebryakov is Nikolai, a rugged chap who looks like Stuart Pearce after 600 consecutive nights on the vodka. For generations, his family has lived in the same cottage overlooking the sea. The land on which it sits is coveted by the local mayor, an obese, spirits-sodden bandit who, Nikolai suspects, wants to build a luxury mansion on the spot. Using his influence with the local police and courts, the mayor obtains an eviction order and pitifully small compensation payout.

The film opens as Nikolai’s appeal is overruled by a judge reading her lengthy verdict in a mindless rapid monotone, a Kafkaesque ritual familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a Russian courtroom. He enlists the help of an old Moscow friend, now a hotshot lawyer, and so begins an epic battle in which nobody’s motivation turns out to be 100% pure.

The film, which many reckoned to be the best at Cannes this year, is Zvyagintsev’s fourth. He spent most of his first 40 years determined to become an actor. Schooldays in Novosibirsk, a Siberian city right in the middle of Russia’s vast landmass, were spent “dreaming of theatre, obsessed with it”. First came conscription in the Red Army theatre troupe, then he arrived in Moscow in 1986, aged 22, just as Soviet society was on the cusp of enormous change.

Work did not flood in. He spent years cleaning, sweeping leaves and shovelling snow as a dvornik – quintessential Moscow work now largely done by low-paid migrants from Central Asia – devouring books and films in his spare time. “I’d seen Al Pacino in Bobby Deerfield, and I went bonkers. In Russia it was shown in black and white; when I saw the colour version it was a completely different effect. But I saw how he acted and was amazed, I couldn’t understand how he was able to do it.”

He began to pick up small parts in adverts or trashy soaps. A friend suggested he helped out with directing; his first film was a cheap ad for a furniture salon.

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