1934 was one of the most fateful years for our suffering Russia. The shooting of Communist leader Kirov was the cause of a new wave of mass murders. Ex-cameraman and now director D.Dolinin, in his eighth movie The Myth of Leonid, tries to catch the sense of that time, to investigate the phenomenon of “the small man” Leonid Nikolaev – one of the screws in the Party’s machine constructed by the Bolsheviks. Like I.Dyshovichny in Moscow Parade, Dolinin doesn’t want to make everything happening on screen into documentary. Remaining within the framework of realistic narration, the director tries to investigate the character of a hero, interpreting him as the typical product of a totalitarian system. The ambitious, pitiful, odd, self-loving Nikolaev doesn’t evoke compassion, though there is nothing to hate him for… there were plenty of such people in those days. He was just the one to whom that lot was cast, and with his help Stalin’s intelligence corps played its bloody game, using his extreme, odious suspiciousness.
Had The Myth of Leonid come out about 15-20 year ago, its appearance would probably have raised viewers’ interest and tempest in the Russian press. But, unfortunately, the movie is late. Readers and moviegoers in Russia have already been exposed to a storm of information about different aspects of the Soviet totalitarian regime. Their fed-up feelings can be overcome only by a masterpiece. The Myth of Leonid doesn’t claim this title.
Lost in the Kremlin…
The Inner Circle directed by A.Konchalovsky developed a certain reputation in Russian cinema press: one after another, critics said that its aim was to cater to Western viewers’ preferences by means of American marketing techniques.
There are reasons for such a conclusion: The main roles in the film are played by the American Tom Hulce and the British bob Hoskins; the story of Ivan Sanshin, Stalin’s private projectionist, is developed on the screen in a style close to the traditions of melodrama. Konchalovsky, an expert in psychological drama (Uncle Vanya, Duet for One), turns up the volume in The Inner Circle while deliberately declining to apply a European depth – a penetration of thought – to his characters; that, of course, makes them understandable to an audience not versed in the twists of Russian history through the Thirties and Forties.
Many Russian directors, probably inspired by A.German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin, would try to focus on the tragedy of the bitter understanding of truth by a man who, a cog in Stalin’s totalitarian machine, became the obedient executor of another’s orders. But this Russian directors of an American film accentuates the love story of Ivan and his wife who passed through the dirty, lusting hands of the killer Beria. In another move, Konchalovsky demotes her memories in favor of the usual plot constructions of standard transpacific cinema.
And, frankly speaking, I don’t see anything bad about this.
The internationalism (not of class, but common human values) of the cinematic language in The Inner Circle is a necessary bridge between different mentalities and cultures.
Moreover, Konchalovsky managed to gather a wonderful acting team. Tom Hulce (the legendary Amadeus in M.Forman’s film) plays Ivan in such a way that there is nothing for us but to wonder how this star of Western screens captured Slav naiveté’, enthusiasm and childlike defenselessness.
B.Hoskins, in the role of Beria, scores no less of an exact hit with the buttery look of this funny fat man from whose eyes sometimes blows a cold, ominous wind. Maybe the role is played slightly grotesquely, yet it is brightly convincing. Against this background, A.Zbruev loses in the role of Stalin; he hasn’t got much kick or an actor’s original vision.
A whole constellation of Russian actors play minor characters in The Inner Circle, and in spite of their short appearances on screen stay in memory even more than in their previous roles. Brilliantly does I.Kuptchenko lead her episode as a teacher in orphanage for children of the “people’s enemies”, revealing contradictory feelings of fatigue, fear, compassion, pain and devastation.
A sense of the real nature of a Russian woman who doesn’t understand how it is possible for a man to love Comrade Stalin more than a wife and a poor child exists in the performance of the performance of the American actress L.Davidovich also.
In The Inner Circle Konchalovsky aspires to show that despite all hardships the people felt themselves happy in the faraway Thirties, though their happiness was possible only while they trusted leaders infinitely and dispensed with questions and doubts. As soon as they began to ask questions, the whole of their prosperity was ruined, drawing them into the currents of morally and physically crippled Fates.
Returning to Form
Frankly speaking, Piotr Todorovsky’s, previous film with the enticing title of Inter-Girl, very much disappointed me. A subtle psychologist, director of the wonderful The Martial Love Affair and imperfect but ingenious Along Main Street with the Brass Band, Todorovsky suddenly was carried away by V.Kunin’s shallow story that showed – in an accessible, mass-language style – how prostitutes could love. Of course, thanks to the director’s professionalism, the straightforward script began to look rather profound and sometimes even psychologically convincing, but on the whole it was not suited to Todorovsky’s personality.
Thank to God, in his Encore, More Encore Todorovsky has returned to his own style. He himself wrote the script about the life of Russian military town in 1946, he wrote the touching music, and he chose the same title as that of canvas by the famous Russian artist Fedotov.
I spent my childhood in one such town for Army personnel. And during the screening I remembered the past with a sad nostalgia. The closed community: a reserved world where everybody knows each other, where even a needle in a haystack could never hidden from the curious eyes of the officers’ wives, but where nevertheless all kinds of extraordinary events take place. Now the handsome major brings a whole bunch of frivolous beauties from the city in his smart car; now several drunks fight; now the senior lieutenant, pistol in hand, chases his unfaithful wife…
Gathering these stories together, and inviting Mel Brooks to direct, a very funny comedy could be made. But Todorovsky, as is well known, isn’t Brooks. So in his film the funny episodes (for example: a husband comes home after work to find his wife sleeping with his chief) are mixed with a dramatic plot. The ominous signs of those times are in evidence – when the authorities could send a boy, who was counting days till the end of his military service, to prison simply for carelessness in writing several superfluous words to a civilian friend; when the colonel, a wartime hero, had to submit to a miserable KGB captain; and so on.
One Russian critic declared in TV program that Encore… evokes brutal laughter among audiences, that there is no love in the film, and primitive instincts triumph. From my point of view, only a man who didn’t watch attentively could have such an opinion. True, there is no refined, intellectual love here; the love scenes are loaded with humorous detail. You believe, however, in the sincerity of the characters’ feelings. You believe that while the colonel, who was in the whole war, loves his wife whom he met at the front, he can’t forget his pre-war wife too. You believe that the colonel’s young wife had fascinated the charming lieutenant and then he lost courage. You believe in the love of the unfaithful wife, who receives her husband’s supervisors in her bed for the sake of his service career.
This film appeals because it does something the Russian cinema of late years has pretty much forgotten is possible: Todorovsky tells about life through love… even if it sometimes looks funny and is not what you’d call spiritual.
Summer 1957. Moscow. International festival of youth & students. The rhythms of banned jazz. Smiling young faces…
V.Moskalenko rather carefully recreates the romantic atmosphere of those years, when Russia was creeping slowly out of Stalinism’s ice age. The love story of a Moscow student and his new girlfriend – French with Russian origin – seems natural against this background. The authors of the film The Way to Paradise, however, don’t seem to want to please us with retro-melodrama: the lovers are between two fires. On one hand, the KGB wants the Russian boy, nephew of an academician-chemist, to be its informer. On the other, the girl has been sent by the French side to learn the chemical secrets of her boyfriend’s uncle.
Obviously, it’s an unexpected change after a lyrical beginning. I would have liked the film just to tell the love story… sentimental, a little bit sad, with its ‘50s teenage hits. But I’m sure this spy’s version of the plot will find its admirers, especially since in this conflict the authors are obviously on the side of love, not the interests of this or that intelligence or secret service.
The Way to Paradise is made with a sense of style, the actors’ play is rather convincing. Like S.Ursulyak’s Russian Ragtime, Moskalenko’s film doesn’t claim psychological depth and analysis. It’s a moody sketch, invoked by nostalgia for the end of the ‘50s.