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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Master Filmmaker Changes With the Times

Coping with the new capitalist reality of the privatized film industry is proving a struggle for some of Russia's most respected directors. The changes have been painful for Stanislav Govorukhin, whose video essay, "The Great Criminal Revolution," projects a desperate image of modern Russia. And they're frightening for the renowned comic master, Eldar Ryazanov, who now works out of Berlin and whose most recent film, "Prediction," is a distinctly gloomy farce about emigration and despair. Rock-culture expert Sergei Solovyov has chosen to ignore the changes entirely, bringing together some of Moscow and St. Petersburg's most alternative underground artists and poets for his next project, "Red Giselle," about the Diaghilev seasons in turn-of-the-century Paris.

But after more than four decades, director Georgy Danelia is still riding high as one of the country's most consistently popular filmmakers. And nothing -- not skyrocketing costs, not poor distribution, not growing apathy among film audiences -- keeps him from continuing to produce his signature gentle and bittersweet comedies.

His last movie, "Nastya," an enchanting fairy tale of a film released in 1992, has enjoyed a warm reception in Russia as well as professional acclaim abroad. And despite a dwindling budget, work on his latest film, "Heads and Tails," is in full swing at the Mosfilm studios. Danelia, who actively sought commercial sponsors to raise the 500 million rubles needed to finance his new project, isn't afraid to change with the times, as long as it means keeping his films on the screen.

Danelia's directorial debut coincided with the beginning of Khrushchev's thaw, when general yearning for a fresh, unbiased focus resulted in a new type of protagonist -- a child or a young man. "A Summer to Remember" ("Seryozha"), released in 1960, is a small, intimate portrait of the adolescence of a young boy growing up in southern Russia. The film recalls his relationship with his mother and stepfather, and evokes an atmosphere of innocence the boy knows he won't be able to reclaim. His young eye registers with crystal-clear focus everything that escapes the stereotypes and banal associations of the adults.

His tender 1964 drama, "I'm Walking Around Moscow," depicts a single day in the life of a metro construction worker, played by the young Nikita Mikhalkov. The film, filled with chance encounters, sudden friendships and inspired love stories, was a model of his refreshingly tongue-in-cheek style and won Danelia a contract with the Fitil ("Fuse") series of satirical documentary shorts. These went on to be screened before nearly every film at cinemas during the Brezhnev era and starred comedian Yevgeny Leonov, who was to become a regular feature of Danelia's movies and a close friend of the director.

"There are no acting failures in Danelia's films," Leonov, who died last January, once said. "Professionals and amateurs alike give perfect performances, every one of them. That's why there are no bit parts in his comedies -- everyone's an individual, everyone has got a character."

At a time when satire was virtually eliminated by the socialist realist school of Soviet cinema, Danelia was one of the very few directors to develop an Aesopian, metaphorical language for his films. A Georgian by birth, the director mixed the urbanity of Moscow with the festive style of his native land to remarkable effect in two of his best comedies: 1969's "Don't Grieve!" and "Mimino," which came out in 1978. The earlier film, which weaves a tragic farce of courting and marriage against the pictorial background of patriarchal Georgian traditions and rituals in a village town, is rich with eccentric figures, eloquent toast-masters at fabulous feasts, and old men hurrying to arrange their own funeral repasts before they pass away.

"I was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, but I've lived my entire life in downtown Moscow, near Chistiye Prudy," said 64-year-old Danelia. "Both cultures are dear to my heart. Everyone should have a 'small motherland' to inspire them deep down. For me it's Georgia."

"Mimino" celebrates this concept of a second motherland with the story of a helicopter pilot who gives up his work serving remote Georgian villages to fly jet planes for international flights, only to become bored with the big sky and eager to return to his mountain job.

Danelia's best-known film is perhaps the 1980 "Autumn Marathon," a wry portrayal of a middle-aged university professor whose basic inability to say no results in the collapse of nearly every aspect of his life, both personal and professional. The professor, brilliantly interpreted by actor Oleg Basilashvili, is intelligent and truly kind, but so totally passive that he watches his life change without being able to step in and alter the chain of events. The film, set in a darkening autumnal St. Petersburg, is enlivened by well-timed doses of humor, but its somber portrait of the strangled lives of Russians during the 1970s is bleak and straightforward.

A steady flow of impressive productions followed "Marathon," among them "The Tears Were Dropping," a 1984 film starring Yevgeny Leonov, the 1988 "Kin-Dza-Dza," and 1990's stunning "Passport," the story of a Georgian who inadvertently finds himself on a plane bound for Israel with his immigrant brother's passport.

"Nastya," Danelia's first post-Soviet film, was a Cinderella tale adapted from the 20-year-old play by Alexander Volodin, who also wrote "Autumn Marathon." The touching story of a plain girl's magical one-day transformation into a trendy, long-legged beauty gives the heroine, played by Polina Kutepova, a chance to get a taste of life among the elite group of "new" Russians, and gave Danelia a chance to provide a scathing satire on the manners and mores of contemporary Moscow. The film is still a popular favorite for Russian moviegoers.

"I don't see myself as a 'pure' comic master," Danelia said. "Humor is just one of the possible ways for a filmmaker to tell a story about something. But I think if you use humor and laughter, it might deliver a more direct message while being less preachy. That's why sharp comic twists are not as important in this particular film."

"I worked on 'Nastya' for 2 years," he added. "Times had been pretty tough, and I managed to predict that audiences probably missed this kind of soothing comedy. 'Nastya' is a product of precise calculation. And I'm happy I was right."

Danelia's sense of irony and sadness, and his sympathy for and delight in downtrodden eccentrics won the film the Amarcord Prize at the Rimini Film Festival in Italy, an award specially established by Federico Fellini six months before his death.

"Heads and Tails," may earn the director similar success. The film, based on the 1974 novel by Vladimir Makanin, is about "love and devotion," said Danelia, centering on a young man who returns to Moscow after three years away, only to discover that the woman he loves -- played by "Nastya" star Kutepova -- has already married.

"This is going to be a tragic and captivating romance," Danelia said. "Time and surroundings change, but passions stay the same."

Georgy Danelia's "Nastya" will be shown in the Moskva Cinema on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad at 6:30 P.M. Saturday and Sunday. Tel. 251-7222. Nearest metro: Mayakovskaya.