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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Forty-First

(image source: © ozon)
no copyright infringement intended

Сорок первым должен был стать на Марюткином смертном счету гвардии поручик Говоруха-Отрок. А стал первым на счету девичьей радости.

It's during the Russian Civil War; she is a sniper in the Red Army; he is an officer at the Whites and her prisoner; she must shoot him is he to escape; these are the orders; suddenly a storm leaves them alone on a deserted island; the two fall in love (you'd say it's kind of Stockholm syndrome avant la lettre, somehow turned upside-down, whatever); the occasion for him to escape arrives, will she follow her orders or rather her heart? add to this his uncanny gift of retelling the story of Robinson; add to this the strange magic of the Karakum desert - blue sky infinite over yellow sand infinite - and of the Aral sea - yellow sun infinite over blue sea infinite; all this magic can make you falling madly in love, or simply falling mad.

(image source: © otzovik)
no copyright infringement intended

Boris Lavrenev wrote this story in 1924; it was published in Zvezda (a literary magazine led by that time by Ivan Maisky, who would later become one of the most outstanding Soviet diplomats of the epoch); in 1927 Yakov Protazanov adapted the story to film; Grigori Chukhrai made a remake in 1956.

I took contact with the three oeuvres in reverse order. Firstly I saw the movie of Chukhrai, sometime by the 1960's. I had already watched his Ballad of a Soldier and Clear Skies and I was very impressed by his his way of telling the stories, distancing from the official artistic dogmas, being simply natural. Obviously I was interested to see also The Forty-First, made earlier than the other two. I wanted to make a comparison, to see if his attitude towards life had been free at the same degree. As for the movie of Protazanov, it was impossible to find it.

(image source: © otzovik)
no copyright infringement intended

The memory of Chukhrai's movie came to my mind recently, and I watched it again, on youTube. A great director, a great cinematographer (Sergey Urusevskyi) producing hallucinatory imagery. And Oleg Strizhenov was unforgettably telling the story of Robinson, setting with it the frame for the magic.

This time I watched immediately also the movie of Protazanov on youTube. Another great director, another great cinematographer (Pyotr Yermolov, I did not know much about him). Ivan Koval-Samborsky was in the role of the White officer, an actor with a dramatic biography.

Surely I wanted to go further, to the original story. I found a very well written summary on the web, then I ordered an English translation of the book on Amazon. I read it in one day. Though I knew now the plot very well, the book could not be left up to the last page.

Lavrenev, Protazanov and Chukhrai, three artists telling the same story, while contemplating it differently.

Let's begin with the movie created by Chukhrai. It was his first movie, made in 1956. The Soviet society was beginning a painful process of freeing itself from the Stalinist referential, of opening the windows toward fresh air. Though this process was tightly controlled and had very strict limits, for many people living in those years the effort was genuine. And the movie of Chukhrai was trying just that: to find out what was beyond the political datum. The director set the story under a deep humanist credo: Soviet musts could not be absolute - beyond them life was claiming its rights to exist. The story of love, yes, that was absolute, and it was tragic, because the political chains could not be broken. The tone of the story seemed very personal: the effort of the love story to liberate itself from the political realities was the same with the effort of Chukhrai to go beyond the dogmas of the regime.

Lavrenev's story (and Protazanov's film) had a different tonality: a fact of life observed from afar and told with a good dose of detachment. This time the political realities constituted the absolute, with their two totally separated universes, the Reds and the Whites. Anything that appeared beyond, like the story of love, was just absurd. But this meant that life in general was absurd, which ultimately implied even the political reality. The two universes were not only hostile, each one was perceiving the other without any correspondence in the reality. It was not clear at all (to use Anthony Loyd's way of telling things) whether they were fighting the good cause for the wrong reason or the wrong cause for the good reason. His Holiness the Paradox seemed to be in control of the whole circus. There is in Lavrenev's story (well reproduced by Protazanov's movie) a subtle sense of Swiftian irony.

(image source: © otzovik)
no copyright infringement intended

But all this irony is greatly balanced by a feeling of empathy for each personage and each fact. From the story author, as well as from the movie director. As absurd as they could be these facts and these people, everything is observed with a great science of the human - human naivete, weaknesses, illusions, absurdity - the whole is wrapped by something like a charm.

And actually this charm links all three artists, LavrenevProtazanov and Chukhrai, beyond their different tonalities in telling the story. The magic of the infinite dialog of the sun with the sky, the desert, the sea. Paradox at Lavrenev/Protazanov, tragedy at Chukhrai, it is beyond the same magic, following its unknown laws, maybe unaware of our struggles, however sending us, through these artists and their books and movies, discrete signals of sympathy.

Лавренев родился в зеленом, «уютном, ласковом», Херсоне. Близость Черного моря, старинные крепостные укрепления, излучающие поэзию исторических воспоминаний, широта степного простора вокруг, голубизна южного неба над головой — эти впечатления детства во многом определят темы, место действия, краски, самый стиль будущих произведений писателя, их жизнелюбивый пафос, их праздничную приподнятость, их яркую живописность.
(source: otzovik)

(Boris Lavrenev)

(Yakov Protazanov)

(Grigori Chukhrai)

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