Sunday, 6 January 2013

moscow does not believe in tears (w& d vladimir menshov, w. valentin chernykh)

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears won the best foreign film Oscar in 1981. I'd never heard of it. If you had, hats off to you. It struck me watching this well-crafted film quite how much the Soviets lost the propaganda war. Those of us who grew up in latter years of the Cold War knew almost nothing about how ordinary people lived in the USSR. And almost everything about how they lived in the USA. How was anyone supposed to identify with the dark Communist empire if we knew nothing about the lives of those who inhabited it? 

Menshov's film takes us into the heart of everyday Moscow. It's a big, ambitious melodrama. It opens in 1958, focusing on the lives of three young women who live in a pension. One already has a fiancée. Another, the flighty Lyudmila, wants to find a respectable husband. When the third, Katerina, flatsits for her scientist relative, Lyudmila uses this as an opportunity to invite eligible bachelors around. She falls for an ice hockey star, whilst Katerina is seduced by a callow TV man, who dumps her on discovering her true social status in spite of the fact she's now pregnant. (The treatment of class in the film is fascinating, with the clear message that it was just as important in the fifties' USSR as it was in Macmillan's Britain.) The action then skips forwards 16 years to the mid seventies. Katerina is a successful career woman, but still single. She meets the maverick individualist, Gosha, and the second part of the film focuses on their late-blooming romance.

As the brief synopsis shows, this is unremarkable, even humdrum narrative material. Almost a USSR Sex and the City. But in its own way, as opposed to the films of Tarkovsky, for example, this is what makes the film so intriguing. Far from leading the dour, dull lives  that the citizens of the Soviet empire were portrayed as having, these are characters whose issues are close-to-home. Their lives don't feel constrained by the Communist system anymore than ours are constrained by capitalism. Menshov even manages to make the new-build estates on the edge of Moscow where the older Katerina lives look attractive. Whilst Menshov was clearly working within the Soviet system (as are those who make the Hollywood romcoms) it's intriguing to note the normality of the world depicted, one where individuals are free to express themselves as they please, to make mistakes and to spend the rest of their lives trying to make sense of these mistakes. 

Menshov's film doesn't appear to have pretensions to being 'great art', (with none of Kalatazov's dizzying camerawork, for example), but it has moments of magic and the relationships and acting are always engaging. We warm readily to these flawed characters and root for things to work out. In spite of the fact that Katerina ends up being a senior party official, we see here as a woman desperately trying to hold her life together and deal with her middle-aged loneliness. But, even if it won an Oscar, the Soviets never seemed to grasp the value of projecting their vision of society beyond their frontiers. As much as any other, the cultural war was won by the US. Governments may treat culture as a marginal sector in their budgets and their thinking, but its significance should never be undervalued.  

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