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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Director's Take on the Rural Russian Soul

"And how has our village changed in the last 1,000 years?" muses Asya, the heroine of Andrei Konchalovsky's latest film. "Not a bit. It is the same as it has always been." This is the bitter truth at the heart of "The Chicken Ryaba," a snapshot of rural Russia during the incomprehensible transition to capitalism. "The Chicken Ryaba" was recently named one of the 20 best films of the year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Konchalovsky's brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Grand Prix du Jury for his new film, "Wearied by the Sun." In some regards, Konchalovsky has been overshadowed by his brother and his career has had considerable ups and downs. The low point came when he directed the blatantly commercial Hollywood film "Tango and Cash" with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. Recently, however, things have been looking up. His 1991 film, "The Inner Circle," which tells the story of Stalin's personal projectionist, won considerable acclaim and demonstrated that Konchalovsky had not lost his feel for Russia during his years abroad. "The Chicken Ryaba," which Konchalovsky presented at the Cinema Center on Thursday, revisits the scene and characters of "The Story of Asya Klyachina, Who Loved, But Didn't Marry," his starkly realistic melodrama that was made in 1967 but was not released until the peak of Gorbachev's perestroika. For his new film, however, Konchalovsky adopts the rich, satirical tone of the 19th-century writers Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. As a result, despite the film's apparent theme of "Russia under change," it has much more to do with what is unchanging in Russia and in the Russian character. At first glance, the film seems simple. Its name is taken from a Russian folk tale that is the equivalent of the Western story of the goose that laid the golden egg. In both stories and in the film, opportunity only brings out people's stupidity and greed, and everyone ends up worse off than before. The complex plot centers on a typical middle-aged woman named Asya, played by Inna Churikova, who finds a million-dollar golden egg in her barn, and the mishaps that ensue when the entire village finds out about it. Konchalovsky, who has chosen to use actual villagers rather than professional actors in most of the parts, shows us a village that seems to be pining for the order of Soviet times amidst the chaos and crime of the new Russia. This is a world in which the words entrepreneur, businessman, speculator, criminal and mafioso are synonyms. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The scenes of protesting villagers marching with Soviet-era banners and portraits of such visionary leaders as Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko are carefully depicted to recall the religious processions that have been part of Russian life since time immemorial. Likewise, the scenes in which the kolkhoz collective meets to discuss the village's problems bring to mind the traditional village commune that long pre-dated the Communist revolution. Gogol described his artistic method as "laughter through tears," and this is exactly the combination of effects that Konchalovsky achieves with "The Chicken Ryaba." All of his characters are like children, with all the good and bad that entails. They are at once naive, trusting, sincere and forgiving; at the same time, they are spitefully envious, maliciously vicious and unable to express themselves except by screaming and hitting. Konchalovsky is obviously interested in crucial character traits that are more fundamental to Russia than Communism and that, in fact, predisposed Russia of all countries to embrace that ideology. In one scene, for example, a decrepit babushka is on her knees washing the floor with a tiny rag. When the owner of the house complains that he does not want the floor washed this way and begs her to use his new western vacuum cleaner, she replies: "This is the way I've always done things!" The movie also vividly depicts the Russian tradition of using collective pressure to stifle individual initiative. For example, when one villager comes into enough money to buy a truckload of supplies in the nearby town, her spiteful neighbors sabotage the bridge on the road back, sending her precious cargo uselessly into the river. Finally, perhaps the most disturbing theme in "The Chicken Ryaba" is rural alcoholism, which more than anything is responsible for stultifying the Russian countryside. One man who unexpectedly comes into 300,000 rubles can think of nothing better to do than buy cases of vodka. Likewise, when the richest person in the village is confronted by an angry mob of his neighbors, he mollifies them instantly by bringing out a cartload of bottles. When Konchalovsky introduced his film, he responded to critics who claim that his vision of Russia is too negative. "You might be sick of your left hand," he said, "but you cannot kill it. It is part of you and it helps you live and work." For better or for worse, Russia is stuck with the traditions of its past. Luckily those traditions include transforming Russia's sorrows into great, thought-provoking art.