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Post by Anna Fomicheva

Places 10-8

#7. Valentina Kostina from Speech for the Defence (“Слово для защиты”, 1976)

Marina Neyolova is one of the most outstanding Russian actors and one of my all-time favourites. She’s the Russian equivalent of Meryl Streep in that her acting is so sublime it’s beyond analysis. Speech for the Defence is a lesser-known role in a lesser-known film from the legendary writer-director duo of Aleksandr Mindadze and Vadim Abdrashitov. The masters of understatement and subtlety, they were not interested in using cinema to rise above reality and the grey, boring ‘everyday’. In fact, they used the grey and boring ‘everyday’ as a tool to convey the experiences of their characters and the motivations behind their moral choices. Wrong and ambivalent moral choices are too easy to make without noticing, in the middle of all the other daily business we have to go about. Abdrashitov & Mindadze’s films at first saturate us with the mundane until we lose our alertness to those moral choices. But they always include a character who stands out, and who brings us back out of our contented experience of the film and ultimately our own lives. (See the outstanding 1982 film The Train has Stopped, “Остановился поезд” for the best example of this).

In Speech for the Defence Neyolova’s heroine Valentina is just such a character. Valentina is being tried for the attempted murder of her lover, played by another one of my favourite actors, Stanislav Lyubshin. The story unfolds for us through the eyes of Valentina’s lawyer Irina, a young, confident, successful woman who is about to get married to her long-term partner. We spend a lot of time following Irina’s home life, her wedding preparations, her interactions with her friends and her fiance (played by the legendary Oleg Yankovsky). And it is through the occasional scenes of her work, which eventually become the focus of the film, that we get to learn Valentina’s story and her character. It is a story of unconditional love of unique and heartbreaking intensity for an averagely bad man. Her love, devotion and Jesus-like forgiveness of her selfish and pathetic lover are so striking they force Irina to rethink her own life and relationship.

There is a kind of holy stubborness to Valentina, which reminds me of Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Indeed, one could very well argue that Valentina’s character is part of the Russian holy fool (юродивый) tradition that so rarely includes women. Oh, and did I mention that Neyolova’s performance is out of this world?

#6 Frosya Burlakova from Come Back Tomorrow (“Приходите завтра”, 1963)

Frosya Burlakova is a legendary, much beloved character, and one that is very difficult to separate from the actor who portrayed her, Yekaterina Savinova, so I shall not try. Savinova was born in a small Altai village and was something of a rough diamond when she came to Moscow in the hope of becoming an actress. She had an outstanding voice, but was not interested in a singing career, despite numerous offers, including from the Bolshoi. She graduated from Moscow film school VGIK in 1950, but was mostly working in theatre afterwards. The widely acknowledged rumour has it that the most powerful man in Soviet cinema, Ivan Pyryev, closed most studio doors for Savinova after she rejected his advances during the shooting of his 1950 classic Cossacks of the Kuban (“Кубанские казаки”). Because of that and because of her tragic early death in 1970 (she commited suicide after years of battling with schizophrenia) her cinematic legacy is rather small, and Frosya Burlakova in Come Back Tomorrow is her biggest and most memorable role.

The film was directed by her husband Evgeny Tashkov and tells the story of a young woman from a small Siberian village who comes to conquer Moscow in the hope of making it as a singer. The film uses plenty of details of Savinova’s own biography and takes full advantage of her provincial charisma. In fact, it could be easily argued that the film exploits all the clichés in the Russian book of clichés about naive provincial girls with pure souls. But the result is irrestible. Savinova’s natural comedy talent as well as her incredible singing voice are simply larger than any cliché, and larger even than the film itself. It is a perfectly good film, with perfectly good performances, but Savinova as Frosya simply eclipses everything and everyone in it, including the universally adored Anatoly Papanov, who comes across as something of an afterthought here.

It might be the knowledge of her tragic life and career, but I can never shake off the feeling of profound sadness and melancholy when watching the film, even as I laugh at the pure comedy gold that is this scene of Frosya’s first auditon.

And now if you really want to have your heart broken have a listen to this recital of Schubert’s Serenade by Frosya Burlakova/Yekaterina Savinova. It’s quite something.

You can watch the whole film without the English subtitles here.

#5 Lena from July Rain (“Июльский дождь”, 1966)

July Rain is one of my favourite Russian films of all time. It is very often talked about in terms of its use of techniques pioneered by the French New Wave, and is hence all too often defined as an homage to or a pastiche of the movement. And sure enough, the film has that fascination with the City and its glamorous youth that we find in the films of Goddard and Truffaut. It has that wandering camera that can just suddenly decide in the middle of telling a story to spend a good three and half minutes focusing on foreign diplomats getting out of their cars in the middle of Moscow to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s rendition of La Vie en Rose. Just because it can. Just because it looks good. (And don’t forget the jump-cuts!). The film’s spectacular opening, with its tracking shots of a busy Moscow street and an immensely satisfying montage of radio sounds and noises, is a fine testament to the power of the kind of filmmaking that was practiced by the new wavers.

And yet, and yet…this is not why I love July Rain as much as I do. I believe that it is trying to do something entirely different, something of its own with these techniques.

Marlen Khutsiev, one of the best Russian filmmakers, directed a film called I Am Twenty (“Мне двадцать лет”, 1964) two years prior to making July Rain. The film was inititally shelved, and then heavily recut before being put out in a very limited release. It was restored and shown in full during Perestroika, after which it was immediately pronounced to be a long‐suffering masterpiece of Thaw cinema. Just like July Rain, I Am Twenty depicts a group of young and beautiful people who live, love, work, talk and party in 1960’s Moscow. The former is very often seen as inferior to the latter: longer, drawn‐out and not as focused thematically. But for me, July Rain has the edge.

It is nonetheless very interesting and fruitful to think of the two films next to each other. I Am Twenty is undoubtedly a Thaw picture. Its protaginists are preoccupied with their place in the world and their country, in its history and culture. They are full of doubt and self‐reflection, the kinds of doubt and self‐reflection that made it possible for the film to be banned. But at the centre of it all is a hope and an unshaken belief in the possibility of meaning. Thinking and talking, questioning and struggling, writing and reading poetry are all worth it, because they will inevitably lead to a higher truth. And that is the spirit of the times of Khruschev’s Thaw in a nutshell, masterfully captured by the cinematic medium.

Two years later, however, when by most historians’ accounts the Soviet Union had entered the era known as Brezhnev’s Stagnation (after the assumption of power by Leonid Brezhnev in 1965, the Sinyavsky‐Daniel show‐trial, and other socio‐political changes) Khutsiev makes July Rain. It is important to remember, though, that in 1966 the term ‘Brezhnev’s Stagnation’ did not exist and it is only in hindsight that we can speak of “watershed” moments that “changed everything”. Things were changing indeed, but slowly, gradually, and the talent of the artist in the case of Khutsiev was to catch that air, that social atmosphere of times in transition, that most of us could not articulate if we tried. And July Rain does a phenomenal job of that.

The film starts off with a party vibe, with a happy couple in their late 20’s, Lena and Volodya (played by Evgeniya Uralova and the recently and tragically deceased Aleksandr Belyavsky), living their easy lives as postrgradute students enjoying the happening scene of Moscow elites. The upbeat and careless energy spills off the screen for the first thirty minutes or so only to transition slowly and almost imperceptably into disappointment and quiet emotional discontent. In that transition July Rain is actually reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), and Lena, through whose eyes we experience this transition, in many ways is not unlike Monica Vitti’s Claudia: thoughtful, reflective and reserved. But with one big difference. Claudia, as well as most (all?) women in French New Wave exist through their men, and are defined through them. Claudia’s tragic inabilty to break from Sandro in the last, melancholy shots of L’Avventura stands in high contrast with Lena’s announcement to Volodia that she will not marry him in another very memorable scene in July Rain. No particular reason, he’s done nothing wrong, there’s nobody else, it’s just…not what she wants or needs. For this Lena is a very unusual character in Russian cinema, and it is all the more amazing to see this in a film directed by a man.

The main point and trajectory of July Rain is elsewhere, however. As suggested previously, the film is concerned with the change in the air, and that change is communicated to us by following Lena’s gradual emotional withdrawal from various social situtations, something that peaks in a wonderful scene in which she and her friends sit around a campfire, and as their conversation gets more ironic and nonsensical, she turns her head around and looks away from the literal social circle into the distance across the lake…

From then on she searches for something to lean on, some sort of meaning, which has not been taken over by the acidic, cynical and all‐destroying irony into which the witty, joyous satire of the Thaw has turned into. And this is where the wandering camera takes on a new meaning. It does not just gaze for the sake of gazing, for the sake of beauty or for the sake of cool. The camera is searching for meaning, for something to embrace, for something to gaze at affectionately and celebratorily. And the camera finds it. In one of my all‐time favourite ending sequences in all of cinema Lena wanders into a crowd of WWII veterans during their annual victory celebrations. She soon disappears from view, and the camera lingers on the people in the crowd. We see their embraces, their joy, and ultimately the meaning of their lives, which no amount of irony can erase.

You can watch the whole film with the English subtitles here on Mosfilm YouTube channel.

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