Post by Anna Fomicheva
#2 Elizaveta Uvarova from I Wish to Speak (“Прошу слова”, 1975)
I Wish to Speak is one of the most fascinating, unusual and seemingly paradoxical films of the late Soviet era. It was directed by the superb Gleb Panfilov and stars the outstanding Inna Churikova, his wife and life-long collaborator. (See The Beginning (“Начало”, 1970) for another excellent example of their work together and some great visual references to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc.)
I Wish to Speak focuses on the life of Elizaveta Uvarova, a high-level bureaucrat in a provincial Russian town. Elizaveta is an earnest woman and a genuine believer in the Soviet ideals who is dedicated to her job as much as she is dedicated to her husband and their two children.
The dichotomy and the perceived conflict between the public and the private spheres of life are absolutely crucial to an understanding of the culture and society, as well as the art, of the Brezhnev-period Russia. This conflict has often been desrcibed in terms of Soviet citizens leading a kind of double life, wherein they conformed to the official Soviet rituals and rhetoric by “day” and by “night” slid into their private world, in which they were allowed to be as politically discontented or apathetic as they wished. And the two worlds never merged. This unofficial and generally accepted dichotomy was true not only for the “regular” citizens but also for the political establishment and state bureaucrats of all levels (as this strikingly un-Soviet holiday picture of Leonid Brezhnev demonstrates).
The completely separate existence of these two worlds was something that was just understood and was often unchallenged. I Wish to Speak, however, does precisely that – it challenges this dichotomy by offering us a character for whom the gap between the official Soviet interests and those of her family and private life just does not exist.
Sure, Soviet film history is filled with characters for whom public is private, and for whom the country’s interests, or the interests of the collective, are their own. This is the standard set up for a “good Soviet citizen” represented on screen. However, in the case of these characters we never see their private lives. If we did, it would have been very difficult to reconcile them with the way the characters’ public personas were represented. Just as it was difficult for real-life Soviet citizens to reconcile their personal lives with the demands of the state.
But the reconciliation of the two is what Panfilov and Churikova tried to do in I Wish to Speak by giving equal screen time and weight to both Uvarova’s bureaucratic job and her family life. But despite what one might imagine, this film is far from a propagandistic feature about how this reconciliation is possible. It is in fact a careful and subtle exercise in trying to imagine what such a real-life person would be like and whether they could exist at all. If we put a character like this on screen, could they be a living, breathing person?
The answer is yes. Elizaveta Uvarova is not an idealised, plastic and bland ‘good Soviet citizen’ character. Instead she is a complex, eccentric and intelligent, albeit overly idealistic, woman. Her earnestness and belief in what she does are wonderfully convincing and touching. When a world-shattering tragedy occurs in her family her reaction is at once distrubing and understandable within the logic of the character. This complexity, of the kind that was previously unseen in Soviet film, is what puts this character so high on my list. That and her understated comedy. Her reaction when a family evening is interrupted by the news of the assassination of Salvador Allende makes for one of my favourites scenes in Russian cinema, and is a great example of why Inna Churikova as Elizaveta Uvarova is one of the most irresistable Russian female film characters.
#1 Asya Klyachina from The Story of Asya Klyachina Who Loved But Did Not Marry aka Asya’s Happiness (“История Аси Клячиной, которая любила, да не вышла замуж”, 1967)
Asya’s Happiness, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, is quite possibly my favourite Russsian film of all time. And it really is difficult to write about something that you love and admire so much. It certainly is for me. But I’ll try nonetheless.
Shelved by Soviet censorship after only a few screenings, this film is a remarkable fusion of melodrama and documentary using only three professional actors. It is set in a rural area of Russia and follows, or rather observes, the everyday lives of farmers and old villagers, most of whom are genuine local village folk. Stunningly shot by Georgy Rerberg (also the cinematographer of Tarkovsky’s Mirror) in black and white, Asya’s Happiness is a visual pleasure to behold, and with superbly choreographed editing it moves at a beautiful and mesmerising pace of its own.
The footage of war and prison camp veterans telling their heartbreaking stories (hence the shelving of the film), of village folk celebrating the first harvest around a big table, and of youth frolicking around, often has a feel of observational documentary which makes it all the more amazing how seamlessly the dramatic storyline fits within it. Played by the simply magical Iya Savvina, Asya is a local girl with a limp who is pregnant. The child is Stepan’s, whom she loves despite his inability to be interested in anything but himself. Sasha, a man from a nearby town, is in love with Asya and wants to marry her. He gives her gifts, clumsily courts her with songs and even attempts a drunken rape, claiming that they’ll marry soon anyway, but she is unresponsive to all his advances.
It’s a love triangle, as simple as they come, but it really is only there to frame Asya’s character. Asya is undoubtedly a strong woman, but that description alone does not do justice to the subtleties that Iya Savvina’s performance communicates. Asya is not only strong enough to survive and to not be beaten down by the hard life as well as by the awful treatment from the man she loves. She is also strong enough to never lose her inner balance and affection for the people around her. Asya’s emotional intelligence – and even wisdom – is the heart of this film, which gives its beautiful style its beautiful substance.