Friday, January 2, 2015

Russian Film Review


By Stephen Wilson

Irony of Fate Russian New Year's film favorite.
(Moscow, Russia) - Travelling around Moscow can arouse odd sensations. One distinctly familiar sensation is an uneasy inescapable and haunting 'De ja vu'.

'Alas, haven't I been here before?' You can fool yourself into believing fate has endowed you with the second-sight. However, the truth is more prosaic! You have never been there before! It is just that practically
every courtyard, school and high-rise building shares an identically dull design and architecture. It is not just a case of everything appearing similar, but being similar. If you get very drunk, it is possible you could enter an apartment, in another part of Moscow or even a city, by accidently presuming that it is actually your place. This is the main plot  of Edward Ryazanov's comedy, 'Irony of Fate', 1975. Every year this film is shown to Russians on television  and watching it, or rather partly seeing it has become an almost Russian custom at New Year. In fact, the custom of watching is probably more popular than the less observed custom of attending a banya to carouse with your old friends on New Year Eve which the film espouses. (Anyone who has spent time in Russia will learn that a Russian banya is no sauna, but viewed almost like a ritual form of purification or even in some quarters a spiritual sacrament. Russians have used a banya not only to wash themselves, but to cure or prevent illnesses. For a more detailed view of Russian banyas, you might read a new book by Bryon Macwilliams, 'With Light steam: A personal Journey through Russian baths', Northern Illinois University', 2014)

The film has become a cult movie for some incurable Russian romantics. Beautifully rendered songs, poems, witty dialogue and amusing car stunts not to mention some legendary Soviet actors as well as enigmatic shooting have made it an unavoidable Soviet Classic.

So what is this film about? The main plot is that a doctor called Zheni, who is engaged to be married, goes to spend time in the banya to carouse with his friends just before New Year’s. This is a regular custom.

However, he gets so drunk and disorientated that he ends up returning not to his flat in Moscow, but an identical one at an identical place in Saint Petersburg. When the returning resident of this flat, a Russian literature teacher, returns to her flat she is shocked to find him sprawled over her bed. The rest of the film concerns her failed attempts to get rid of him as he keeps returning back like an unwanted boomerang.

The teacher Nadia is played by Polish actress Barbara Brilska and the Russian doctor by Andrei Myakov. Like many of Ryasanov's films, the humour is not crude, but light-mindedly thoughtful, compassionate and philosophical. Prominent themes of this film are the lingering loneliness of many of the characters struggling against an empty, bleak and desolate environment. The characters find warmth through singing songs, reciting poetry and celebrating the small joys they retain in their lives. The fire of love redeems the wasteland around them. For example, in one scene, the doctor states, 'I feel I have become braver, more resolute and stronger. Maybe it is because we have met'. So the night is seen as refreshingly long and full of potential miracles on New Year's eve. Anything is possible! Fate decrees the main characters fall in love.

What renders this film more relevant to us at this time are the professions of the two main heroes. While one is a teacher, another is a doctor. During their more sober periods, the character's reflect on their vocations. Zheni the doctor declares with gusto to the teacher, 'Unlike how you see me, your colleagues see I'm a positive person.'

Zheni states, 'Isn't it odd that both you and me belong to what people regard as the humanistic professions (caring professions)? 'Our low pay would suggest otherwise', the teacher retorts. Even as far back as 1975, teachers were openly lamenting about their low pay in Russian films! So the Soviet age was no golden age of decent salaries, though teachers and doctors were certainly more respected.

Nevertheless, both doctor and teacher are devoted to their professions and agree with each other on the need to be compassionate to whom they serve. The teacher states her mission is to 'try and teach young people to discover their own wishes in life so they can choose the right path to follow'. Teaching is not just about getting students to pass exams, but about inspiring them to do a lot of soul-searching as well as be thoughtful. It is worth stating that to many Russians, literature is not 'academic,' but something to be felt, breathed and acted out in the real world! A poet is more than a poet. This view especially comes across in the film despite the constant jokes and comic scenes.

However, at this moment of time doctors and teachers are losing their way for new reasons. Now they can turn up at a place of work, such as their school or hospital, and ask themselves, 'Have I walked into the right school? Is this still my old workplace? Do I even have a job here or have they closed the school down without telling me?'

Now doctors and teachers are 'victims of circumstances,’ but of an entirely new kind. Both are seeing their places of work being sold off by officials to private companies at 'super-discounts' while their jobs just 'vanish.’ If you were to really make an authentic sequel to this film, you might call it, 'Love on the Dole'.

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