Russian cinema, Lonely Voice of Man

This weekend, I attended the Russian Nights film festival, which features a smattering of titles gleaned from the touring Russian International Film Festival (RIFF) organized by the Stas Namin Center in Moscow (an arts organization championed in the West by such musicians as Frank Zappa and the Scorpions). I wasn’t able to attend last year’s gala festival here in Los Angeles, but this weekend I was able to purchase the handsome coffee table book that commemorated the event, The Exhibition of Russian Cinema: 100 Movies & 50 Directors of 20 Century in Russia.

I say it’s a handsome book, and indeed it is with its glossy pages, large production stills, and vintage poster reproductions. However, the writing unfortunately reads as if the Russian text was processed through Google’s translation engine and the results were printed verbatim. (On Dovzhenko’s poetic Earth (1930): “A Ukranian village witnesses how a new life comes along with a steel tractor to replace strong oxen that used to plough rich lands. A young white-teeth man Vasil is a tractor driver. He ploughs the side-land of kulak Khoma who gets angry at him fiercely. Finally, one summer night Khoma basely shots dead Vasil.”) But to be honest, despite the poor translation, I find the writing somehow charming and comprehensible–particularly for those films I’ve already seen–and valuable for its authentic Russian perspective.

The film I watched was Alexander Sokurov’s debut feature, his VGIK (State All-Union Institute for Cinematography) student thesis entitled The Lonely Voice of Man, which was completed in 1978 but was immediately shelved by the Soviet authorities for its blatant formalism and melancholy “pessimism.”

Thus marked the beginning of a seven-year period from ’80-’87 in which Sokurov’s work was inevitably banned from being screened at all in his native country. “Those seven years were a dreadful experience for me,” Sokurov has said, “but in no way did they succeed in forcing me to capitulate.” It was only through Gorbachev’s glasnost and the efforts of the Soviet filmmakers union–as well as public support from artists like then-expatriate Andrei Tarkovsky–that Sokurov’s films began to receive distribution.

Lonely Voice is a moody and strikingly filmed work loosely based on the writings of Andrei Platonov (1899-1951), a suppressed writer. Its long takes and carefully composed images take advantage of rural locations and dusty cottages, late afternoon sunlight streaming through windows, and trees rustling in the breeze. It conveys the experience of Nikita, a veteran of the Russian Civil War who returns home to a life of tranquility he can no longer engage. Although he clearly loves one woman, he courts another, and when the two decide to marry, their consummation remains achingly beyond his emotional reach. It’s a mood piece exemplifying grief, loss, and solitude while never completely abandoning hope.

Like many Soviet filmmakers, budgetary constraints forced a mishmash of film stocks to be used–color, black-and-white, monochrome–but also like his compatriots, Sokurov transformed this limitation into a strength, juxtaposing the color and absence of color into an intriguing visual rhythm. Sokurov also intercuts stock footage and archival photos from Soviet life in the ’20s (the film was initially conceived as a short documentary before it was expanded into a dramatic feature). Most strikingly, his use of an atonal score jarringly underscores various scenes, revealing the turbulent emotions that often remain hidden beneath the calm surface of his characters.

The Stas Namin Center’s book suggests that Russian cinema virtually disintegrated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, struggling through the nationalization of its various regions and offering artists a welcome but daunting freedom. As it continues to evolve and crystallize within its new sociopolitical context, it’s good to see at least a few representatives of Russian cinema acquire Western distribution (like Sokurov’s own Mother and Son, Russian Ark, or upcoming Father and Son, or Andrei Zvyaginstev’s excellent The Return). It will be exciting to see what lies ahead.