Seasons of the Heart

Noviye LyudiThe different plots in "Four Ages of Love" are linked by visual elements and the repeating motif of oranges.
Almanac films are often a bit of a puzzle, and Sergei Mokritsky's "Four Ages of Love" is no exception. The debut film from the highly experienced cinematographer loosely links together stories by the season -- from autumn to winter, spring to summer. Certain characters and visual elements overlap between each different part, usually with a humorous reference.

But the humor -- watch out for the repeating motif of oranges, as well as a very talented recurring canine performer -- belies what is a serious, deep piece of filmmaking. And one that reflects with some profundity on Russia today, as well as on life as it is anywhere on the planet.

It's a world of emotional conflict, shaded by elements of actual conflict (we presume the action in the first of the four novellas is in or around Chechnya, while the emotional consequences of that war feature in the closing novella). It's also a world of loneliness mitigated by moments, often by chance, of real emotional contact, alongside jealousies and emotional uncertainties played out against a world in which the struggle just to go on is often the dominating factor for its protagonists.

Scriptwriter Alexei Golovchenko is a priest in real life, and the element of religious allusion in the film is evident, though archetypical attributes of biblical stories are elliptically concealed. Thus, in the opening film, "Autumn," a young man and woman try to return home through a hostile landscape, encountering conflict and temptation along the way. Loosely, they become prototypes for Adam and Eve. The next episode, "Winter," has two veteran stars, Lia Akhidzhakova and Igor Yasulovich as Sarah and Abraham receiving the blessing of a child late in life.

But they are a Sarah and Abraham in a winter Russian landscape, bonding most closely on a trolleybus on the way back from a funeral.

Around them is a world that somewhat recalls that of Eldar Ryazanov's "Office Romance," with the absurdities of Soviet (and now Russian) office public life engaged on an emotional level. The final episode.

"Summer," seems to nod loosely, and movingly, to late scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublyov."

But if there's a director from the past whose shadow looms over it all (in the best sense), it's probably that of Odessa director Kira Muratova, whose vision of the absurdity of contemporary society and life in it, has dominated her most recent work; her earlier films were much more human.

Nevertheless, she's proved a major influence on many younger contemporary directors. Sometimes it has seemed an endorsement of a kind of emotional cynicism. Mokritsky, and especially his writer Golovchenko, have kept a faith, which brings in the religious, but endorses most strongly the human.

Akhidzhakova's role in the film is characteristic. Two years ago, Mokritsky, then as a cinematographer, shot her in a closing episode of Kirill Serebryannikov's "Playing the Victim," a cameo that was very funny, desperate and ultimately close to parody. Here, the actress plays a fully nuanced, if equally short, part -- we come to understand her world, and we empathize.

The same can be said of the mad (or deluded?) priest in the closing section, played by little-known actor Vadim Demchog. This brings the biblical element into New Testament ground, with a story of parents (played remarkably by the popular Alexei Serebriakov and the underspoken, almost numb, Yulia Rutberg) thinking they are finding their son, lost in war, only to be disillusioned. The denouement speaks with great power.

The cinematography by documentary veteran Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev is suitably understated. Despite the elusive gravity of its stories, the film manages plenty of humor along the way, although there are more tears than smiles in its story.

3,5 / 5