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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Fluff Films, Eternal Themes




"Nothing new under the sun," they say, and nowhere is this truer than in Russian cinema. Even the silliest bit of fluff is pregnant with the hoary Great Themes of Russian Literature.


Redemption through suffering, the emptiness of material wealth, and the search for transcendent values in an alien world -- and this is just the Saturday morning cartoon.


Lately I've been overindulging my guilty passion for Russian movies, ending up in a two-day, six-movie splurge that made me think of "The Lost Weekend." While undoubtedly helpful in improving my understanding of the New Russian psyche, the experience is likely to send me screaming into a video store looking for "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."


Even ostensibly escapist entertainment here can catapult the viewer into a tailspin of philosophical introspection. Take, for instance, "Printsessa na Bobakh," a title that defies my poor powers of translation, but means, literally "The Princess on the Beans." Of course, "to sit on beans" in Russian means to be broke, and the royal-cum-vegetable bit harks back to "The Princess and the Pea," so this film packs a whole world view into the first three words.


What follows should have been the classic Cinderella tale: Poor girl meets rich, handsome prince, etc. But in this instance, the prince is a New Russian businessman, a drunken, womanizing boor with the unfortunate name of Pupkov, which is something like "Mr. Bellybutton." He's looking to better his image by wedding the offspring of a noble family and adopting her moniker for business purposes.


The princess is a careworn, middle-aged mother and wife who uncomplainingly works 24 hours a day to support an idle, intellectual Oblomov-type husband, an unregenerate communist mother and a greedy, ungrateful daughter. Her name is Sheremeteva, which to us foreigners is almost worse than Bellybutton, conjuring up images of endless passport lines, grumpy customs men, lost baggage and coffee cans on the ceiling. But the name Sheremeteva has an illustrious, aristocratic resonance, to which several palaces and estates scattered around the country can attest.


So boy meets girl, falls in love and is redeemed. But Cinderella is caught between her harsh, humble, but spiritually uplifting existence and the corrupting influence of a young, handsome, very rich and more-or-less honest guy who is desperately in love with her. If you want to know the ending, buy the movie, but suffice it to say that a Hollywood musical is probably not in the offing.


Hoping to relax, I watched "Monday's Children," another seeming no-brainer with a skewed fairy-tale plot: another rich, hard-drinking, New Russian lout, another poor-but-proud woman, accompanied by a Gogolian cast of country characters. Redemption comes from accepting the superiority of the countryside over the city, of old Russian values over the corruption of money and success. There is even a hint of Russian xenophobia, in the guise of a hypocritical foreign preacher with the last name of "Buck," who courts village women to get his nasty Western hands on their property as well as their bodies. In short, all the themes of the 19th-century Slavophiles, packed into one 90-minute dose of fun.


More serious films also abound, and anyone wanting a gut-wrenching, emotionally draining movie-going experience is definitely in the right place. Sometime in the wee hours of Sunday morning I hit upon "The Thief," Pavel Chukhrai's dark film of childhood in postwar, provincial Russia. It has been nominated for an Oscar, but my prediction is that the scenes of poverty and brutality will prove too much for the Academy's tender sensibilities.


"Brother" is another existentialist cry of pain, as a good-hearted but alienated young person becomes a morally superior hired killer, and saves his older brother from a life of crime by convincing him to go home to Mom and become a cop. I'm still trying to unravel the themes in that one.


"Time of the Dancer" delicately explores love, life, and ethnic tensions in the Caucasus, with the obligatory homage to literature, this time Mikhail Lermontov. The film somehow ties the Chechen war to the romantic notions of "A Hero of Our Time."


My sixth movie, "The Land of the Deaf," was by far my favorite, but its convoluted themes of friendship and betrayal in a down-the-rabbit-hole world of New Russian criminals are impossible to explain. If you haven't seen it, do so.


I, on the other hand, will be busy analyzing motive and character in "Bean."