Peasant Women of Ryazan (Le Village du Péché), 1927
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Бабы рязанские (Baby ryazanskie), a Soviet silent from 1927, produced by Sovkino, co-directed by Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov, gorgeously cinematographed by Konstantin Kuznetsov (maybe better known for Po Zakonu). The movie was known abroad under two alternate titles: the translation of the original (Peasant Women of Riazan, Women of Ryazan, Die Frauen von Rjasan, Rjazanin naiset) or a totally different name (Le Village du Péché, Das Dorf der Sünde, A Aldeia do Pecado, The Devil's Plaything).
It's a story taking place in a Russian village during the first world war. The main character is Anna, let's say kind of a female Uncle Tom по-русски: a young peasant woman not questioning the traditional values, accepting her inferior position as a female and all that comes. She is an orphan raised by an aunt who forces her into an arranged marriage. Fortunately the husband loves her and they are happy (it happens sometimes even in arranged marriages). The war comes and the man is sent to the front. What follows for Anna is horrible: exploited and abused by the elder women of the household, raped by her father-in-law, having a baby as a consequence of the rape, condemned by the elder women for what they consider her sin, rejected by her husband when he comes back. In the end she commits suicide.
In opposition to Anna stays Wassilissa, who rejects any authority set by tradition and takes life in her own hands. She leaves her abusive father and moves with the man she loves. By the end of the movie we see her very active amidst the new social realities (while not explicitly mentioned, the Bolshevik Revolution is present as atmosphere, in the last part of the story). The role of Wassilissa is not so extensively detailed as Anna's, rather it's shown only in some essential flashes that come now and then as the story goes, as a pendant, a counterpoint to the character of Anna: disobedience to the traditional rules versus total submission; freedom of civil union versus arranged marriage, freedom to do your own business against staying in the household to be abused by the elders.
Like any Soviet film of the Avant-garde this movie has a strong thesis: but in the case of this film the thesis is exclusively feminist. All other political themes are left aside. It's full Olga Preobrazhenskaya here: one of the first film directors in history made one of the first feminist films in history. It's a very neat demonstration of the feminist cause: women must fight for their freedom, against male authority, and not only - against any authority that is based on traditions. Traditions are bad because they set all kind of formal or informal authorities that abuse women, keep them in an inferior position. Males in this movie come as negative as it can be: stupid and weak when not tyrants. Though I think that the discourse of this movie is not so much anti-male as it is against traditions, against the old ways. The spirit of the avant-garde of the twenties.
With such a strong thesis, the story could easily fall in arid schema. It's not the case in this movie. It's a well constructed plot and each scene comes naturally. And beside all that, there are the superb images, characteristic for the whole Soviet avant-garde cinema of the twenties: great directors working with great cinematographers: in this movie it was Preobrazhenskaya and it was Kuznetsov.
Бабы рязанские (Baby ryazanskie), 1927
Peasant Women of Ryazan
Le village du péché
(video by Olga is Here)