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Friday, April 08, 2011

Aleksandr Petrov: Rusalka (1997)

This movie is of great beauty, and you can be conquered by the visual wizardry even if not understanding quite well what's going on there. The images are oil paintings on glass, witnessing a rare mastership, and you are like caught by a spell. Yes, Русалка (Rusalka), the ten minutes animation created by Aleksandr Petrov in 1997, binds its viewers, so beautiful it is.

To understand the plot, that's a bit difficult. There is an old monk living in total reclusion. There is a young apprentice who falls in love for a beautiful girl. She appears always emerging from the waters of the river nearby. The hermit notices what's on the way and rememorates some troubling events from his own youth, apparently related to this girl (which sounds weird so far, due to age difference). Prayers are too weak to help, and the hermit has to sacrifice himself to save the boy: the girl is a rusalka, a malefic spirit who kills males falling for her. Even if you don't realize that it's a spell the movie is talking about, you are caught by it: the movie itself is a rusalka.

Some viewed in this movie only the Christian lesson: the old monk makes the supreme sacrifice to save the soul of the apprentice, teaching him (and through the movie also teaching us) the ultimate lesson. I think there are more valences in this movie, and maybe we should start methodically, with the title.

Rusalki belong to the Slavic mythology (to their pagan, pre-Christian universe) and the first challenge is to translate the word. Says Michael Leader (in his fascinating blog, Wild Tyme), it has been translated as Water or River Nymph (a literal description), as Mermaid (a cultural equivalent), or it was left as Rusalka (retaining the Russian word, providing a sense of language over understanding). And Michael Leader concludes, this in itself is a microcosm of the decisions facing translators when they deal with cultural properties.

Let's try an explanation for what a rusalka means. She is a spirit of the waters; long time ago she committed suicide after being abandoned by her lover. So a rusalka is a drown maiden. She is not properly dead, rather in an intermediate realm, and she looks for revenge; only after that she might be fully received in the underworld, to rest for ever. She is powerless when leaving the water; however there's a special week in June when all rusalki keep their power also on land. That's a dangerous week for all of us males, as she looks for revenge on anyone.

Is a rusalka that malefic? I said so above, but on second thought I would say she's rather ambivalent. A rusalka is beautiful, so beautiful that any male falls for her, and hopefully one day love will reciprocate and she will respond other way than killing.

Coming back to the remarks of Michael Leader, he actually talks about the poem of Pushkin, which this movie is based upon. It comes that reading the verses of Pushkin will offer us the clue. Well, it's not that simple: Pushkin wrote two poems, with the same title, Rusalka, quite different each other.

Pushkin created his first Rusalka in 1819 (you'll find the verses at the end of this post). It is the story of an old hermit passing his days in continual prayer, who falls in love for a rusalka. The attraction proves fatal: the old friar ends by drowning. What remains is a gray wet beard flowing over the waters.

In the 1830's Pushkin came back to the subject and started working on a large dramatic poem that remained unfinished. This second Rusalka would be the inspiration for the opera of Dargomyzhsky. The story is more elaborated here. A young prince sacrifices the love of a beautiful maiden in order to make a suitable marriage. The maiden drowns herself and becomes a rusalka. Years are passing and the prince will encounter one day a girl who is the daughter of his long forgotten love: now herself a little rusalka. And he realizes that his love story was the only happy period of his life and nothing else matters any more. From now on the prince would spend most of his time alone in the forest of the Dnieper banks.

And we can ask ourselves: is the rusalka looking for revenge, or just for being again together with her lover? It is this ambiguity that marks the genius of great writers.

The movie of Aleksandr Petrov unifies somehow the stories from the two poems. The old monk is the prince who in his youth betrayed his love. He hopes now to find solace through prayers and mortification. The novice who stays with the hermit will have to learn the way to God through his own trials and errors.

The story calls in mind somehow the movie of the Korean Kim Ki-Duk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... Spring. Like there, it is the large water, and the small shrine, hidden in the woods: an old master, his novice, the way toward purification going through the sins of the youth and the remorse and repentance of a whole life. At the end of the movie we realize that each monk in turn went through the same cycle: sin, repentance. Time is circular, we are to follow the same cycle of life. There is no history, just a present that comes again and again, with each new generation.

There is this circularity of time that marks also the movie of Aleksandr Petrov. The old monk sees in the novice his own image from long time ago. He is just entering the cycle of life, this novice, and the old monk wants to protect him.

So let me give you my understanding of the movie:

As the novice starts to respond at the love games of rusalka, the hermit has a flashback, the remembrance of his sins of youth. He realizes that the girl in the river is his own love that he betrayed long time ago (an interesting detail: the sledge from today's hut appears also in the flashback; to say nothing about the fox who runs at the beginning of the movie, a witness of this circularity of time, of this endless repetition of sin and repentance).

The monk falls asleep while praying and in his dream he ascends Jacob's Ladder to find advice from Heaven. The Blessed Virgin is handing him the Lamb of God, and the monk realizes that he got the Stigmata of Jesus: the heavenly advice is to offer himself to sacrifice in order to save the novice. And that's what he's doing: going to the river, throwing himself inside the waters to save the novice, dying, together with the rusalka, who is now revenged. The novice remains alone, taking care of two graves: monk and rusalka have finally found their solace.

And here is the poem of Pushkin, in the English translation of Genia Gurarie:

In lakeside leafy groves a friar
Escaped the world; out there he passed
His summer days in constant prayer,
Deep studies and eternal fast.
Already with a humble shovel
The elder dug himself a grave,
And calling saints to bless his hovel,
Death—nothing other—did he crave.

So once upon a falling night he
Bowed down beside his drooping shack

And meekly prayed to the Almighty.

The grove was turning slowly black;

Above the lake the mist was lifting;

Through milky clouds across the sky

A ruddy moon was softly drifting,

When water drew the friar’s eye –

He looks; his heart is full of trouble,
Of fear he cannot quite explain;
He sees the waves rise more than double
And suddenly grow calm again.
Then, white as first snow of the highlands,
Light-footed as nocturnal shade,
There comes ashore and sits in silence
Upon the bank a naked maid.

She looks at him and brushes gently
The hair and water off her arms.
He shakes with fear and looks intently
At her seductive, luscious charms.
With eager hand she waves and beckons,
Nods quickly, smiling from afar,
And shoots within two flashing seconds
Into still water like a star.

The glum old man slept not an instant
All night. All day not once he prayed;
Before his eyes still hung and glistened
The wondrous girl’s persistent shade.
The grove puts on the gown of nightfall;
The moon walks on the cloudy floor;
And there’s the maiden—young, delightful,
Reclining on the spellbound shore.

She looks at him, her hair she brushes,
Smiles, sends him kisses sweet and wild,
Plays with the waves—caresses, splashes –
Now laughs, now whimpers like a child,
Moans tenderly, calls louder, louder…
“Here, monk, here, monk! To me, to me!”
Then vanishes in limpid water,
And all is silent instantly…

On the third day the ardent hermit
Was sitting on the shore, in love,
Awaiting the voluptuous mermaid,
As shade was lying on the grove.
Night ceded to the sun’s emergence;
By then the monk had disappeared.
It’s said a crowd of local urchins
Saw floating there a wet gray beard.


(Aleksandr Petrov)

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  • I stumbled upon Rusalka and, looking for additional information, got to your post. It was extremely useful to better understand the short film, and appreciate it in its deep beauty. Congratulations!

    Thank you and keep the good work!

    -Ciro A.
    Guayaquil, Ecuador (South America)

    By Anonymous Ciro, at 11:34 PM  

  • A most beautiful poem and a very good translation as I understand it. Took me entirely into a different world. Denzil, Sri Lanka

    By Blogger Denzil Gunaratne, at 5:05 PM  

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