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Friday, 16 April 2010

Melody for a barrel organ - Kira Muratova

My mind can't help turning to Fernando de Rojas when I think of Kira Muratova. A nagging but a risky parallel of two 'radical pessimists' who are practitioners of two of the most thoroughgoing critiques of 'human nature'. De Rojas's vision in the 'Celestina' - probably the greatest product of Spanish literature in the period after the Reconquista- demolishes Catholic purism which is ruthlessly undermined by the mentality and the life of the eponymous procuress. The imposition of the Catholic Reconquest and 'purification' of Spanish civilisation is here defeated and demolished if only in a work of literature. Muratova accomplishes this feat of forging a radically new and similar sensibility five centuries later in some of her seminal films. If 'Asthenic Syndrome' was one of her major opuses in the demolition of the stifling conservatism of the late Soviet period, this feat is repeated once again in her most recent film ' Melody for a Barrel Organ'. Muratova's vision dates back to the Thaw period and her rare films back then already underlie the grievious challenge that her vision and sensibility would throw up against the conventions and stylistics of Soviet cinema. She was to be one of the few directors to have been expelled almost entirely from the Soviet cinema system ( and it is interesting that another of these expelees- Vitaly Kanevsky- would echo the theme of Muratova's latest film, of runaway children in his masterpiece 'Freeze, Die, Come back to Life'). Jane Taubmann in her seminal study of Muratova describes how Muratova was about to accept the position of cleaning lady in one of the Soviet studios.

Many of Muratova's films have apparently unwieldy forms: her dialogues are often exercises in formalistic 'absurdism', lengthy scenes owe their skill to a sense of parallel boredom of the characters in the scenes and the hypothetical spectator in the cinema (in both Chekhov Motifs and The Asthenic Syndrome), the 'in your face' mannerism of the acting and yet somehow this too is a parallel with de Rojas's 'Celestina'. The play, ironically, is both unstageable in Spanish and yet a classic piece of literature that has survived for five centuries. Both are a triumph of sensibility over style and roundedness. Muratova's achievement is ground-breaking and Ian Christie is surely correct to argue (in March's 'Sight and Sound') that Muratova is the best women film director in the world today and there are moments when one feels the need to say that the word woman is superfluous in this sentence. Her films are often as great as those of Lars von Trier although she is more uneven than him.

For all this 'uneveness' there are films that must surely remain as part of world cinema history for decades to come. Her previous film 'Two in One' may not come into that category but her last one definitely does. 'Melody for a barrel organ' (finally out on general release in Russia after its first showing at the Moscow International Film festival) is arguably one of her greatest films since The Asthenic Syndrome. The unique moments of the latter film - the scenes from the dog compound, the woman's volley of swear words on the metro, the widow who brings back a tramp home and then insults him and sends him away, the hounding of the English teacher played by Popov and so on)- are matched in Muratova's recent film- the scene in the elektrichka, the circle of adults talking into their mobile phones ignoring the orphans request to change their money, the arranged shoplifting by the guilded youth led by Jan Daniel as well as Litvinova's fairy tale costume.

This and The Asthenic Syndrome is no comformist 'chernuka' nor does it lapse into the apocalyptic vision of Lopushansky or Aristakisian. Instead Muratova's game is another one and here she subverts the genre of the fairy tale just as Hans Christian Anderson (and here in the film the quotation of Anderson's 'The Little Match Girl' is made explicit in the most famous and stylised scene of the film) had in the nineteenth century. Yet Muratova can't leave things at that and her Andersonian sad fairy tale is subverted by the recurrent hiccoughing of a gastarbeiter. In her inimitable finale Muratova manages to extrange us even from our sadness and tragic comfort. This is not the faux radical pessimism of Lukas Moodysson of his 'Lilya 4-ever' but courage indeed. A courage resembling the courage of Pasolini's 'Salo'', a less hysterical but, arguably, a more thoroughgoing courage.

In this film, Muratova's hallmarks - her doubles and twins, her insistence on actors performing in an estranged, manneristic way, her repetitions - are more tightly integrated into this film than most of the others of the past two decade in her film-making career. Her sudden use of silence in some scenes- especially the scene of Alyona looking in at the curly-haired angelic figure (the scene where the reference to Anderson becomes manifest) stuns us almost as much as the swearing woman on the metro. Muratova's regulars- Nina Ruslanova, Georgiy Deliev, Renata Litvinova, Jan Daniel, Natalia Buzko as well as possibly Russia's most established theatre director Oleg Tabakov (who played in Muratova's Three Stories) are all present in this film and create some brilliant episodic jewels.

This particular 'road movie' cum comfortless Christmas fairy tale moves from 'elektrichka' (local electric train) to Kiev's main station to casino to supermarket to its final denouement in a renovated loft furnishing us with a tale of two rounded but not particularly pleasant or angelic orphans (and here Muratova spares us even the minimal drops of sentimentalism that even an extremely talented director would have trouble in avoiding). Yet as Nancy Condee argues in her article for Kino Kultura these are fully cohesive human beings and are stunningly acted by Olena Kostiuk and Roma Burlaka- something that was rarely a hallmark in Muratova's more recent post-Soviet films. Condee argues convincingly that is a new development:

It is customary in Muratova's work for these "simulated humans," as one scholar has aptly dubbed them (Berry), to dominate the screen, leaving the viewer no diegetic respite, no recognizable human coherence. Here, by contrast, the two young siblings hold their own in the center of the film, operating as a sense-making instrument through which to watch the sequential, performative episodes. The young pair organizes the film's structure both as a linear mission (the search for the fathers) and as a comprehensive registry of delusional behavior.

Finally it is a point of note that Muratova forges a vision that is radically necessary in today's post-Soviet space. With the flood of religious sentimentalism (Khotinenko's truly awful 'Pop' exemplifying how far this has gone) in Russian-language cinema, Muratova's vision is one truly averse to this trend as was her cinema in Soviet times truly averse to the stifling conformism of its day.

I hope to comment on other recent films on release here but, alas, none of them have quite the punch of Muratova's offering from Odessa and I don't feel they are worthy of being mentioned in the same post dedicated to this masterpiece.

The full text of Nancy Condee's article on the film is available at this address:

P.S (added 21/4/10). That there will always be more to discover in this film as one returns to it is given. A fascinating new reading of the film is given by Nikita Eliseev in Seance magazine in an article entitled 'Red Christmas'. Beginning from the stance that there the closest 'twin' of Muratova in Russian-language cinematography today is Balabanov although they are diamecticrally opposed ideologically. (Balabanov for Eliseev is the conservative revolutionary and military 'pochvennik' and Muratova is the communist, the red). Eliseev speaks about the absence of redemption (iskuplenie) in both their films, contrasting the ending of Muratova's film with that of Fellini's 'Night of Cabiria'. Eliseev sees Muratova as the anti-Hollywood director in the same way that Kafka was the anti-fairy tale teller (their attitude to both was one of hatred) arguing, rather curiously, that Muratova is closer to Gorky than anyone else. Her 'manifesto piece' for art is the smelly tramp in the Kiev railway waiting room singing wonderfully a Ukrainian song. The author of the piece also highlights the atheistic core of the film's ideology pointing out the significance of the picture sold in the local train of the 'Slaughter of the Innocents' but giving it a radically anti-religious meaning during the final scene. The hiccoughing scene, as Eliseev points out, is where Muratova beats the viewer to near senselessness. The article in Russian is available here:

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