Friday, 19 September 2008

Live and Remember (Живи и помни)

The Russian Film Festival opened with Alexander Proshkin’s award-winning Live and Remember, based on the novel by Valentin Rasputin.

Rasputin was born in 1937 in Irkutsk, Siberia, and was a journalist before publishing his first fiction in 1961. He’s associated with ‘country prose’, a genre that began during the Thaw and was characterised by Chekhovian understatedness and slice-of-life stories. Though popular and officially praised (Live and Remember won a State Prize) it presented a sceptical view of modern life and industrialisation, though others felt it was a romanticised Russophilia.

His 1976 story Farewell to Matyora was the basis of the best, and best-known of several film adaptations, though when director Larisa Shepitko was killed in a car crash in 1979 her husband Elem Klimov completed it in 1983. Based on Rasputin’s own childhood, it tells how a village resists the flooding of their valley for the Bratsk hydro-electric dam.* In 1965 the project had inspired a very different artistic response in Yevtushenko’s panoramic epic poem. They, in turn, were different from creatives’ views of the Dnieper dam: Esfir Shub’s K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (1932) or Fyodor Gladkov’s novel Energy, which, written between 1932 and 1938, was actually in production for longer than the dam itself!

Siberia during the war. While most of the men are away fighting, the women work as loggers, to supply the wood vital for the war effort. When Nastya's soldier-husband, Andrei is stationed near the village, he takes the opportunity to go AWOL. As a deserter, he can't go to the village, so he lives in the woods and Nastya brings occasional supplies, while there are various attempts to find him. Ironically, after four years of childless marriage, she falls pregnant. Andrei sees it as a blessing and insists she bears it but Nastya doesn’t know what to do: unable to reveal that it is Andrei's, she claims it was a passing Red Army Commissar. The village is divided, some, including her mother-in-law, condemning her and some more sympathetic, but when suspicions grow (perhaps fuelled by Andrei's father) she sticks to her story. The war ends but Andrei still doesn't reveal himself. A search party is sent out and Nastya, hoping to warn him, sets off across the lake at night. One of her oars breaks and, realising that she may in fact be leading them to him, she jumps into the lake. At a commemorative meal, Andrei is condemned, though there is an irony when one of Nastya's friends agrees that "he is in hell", while Nastya is elevated to a 'saint'. A tug-boat sails down the river, broadcasting the Red Square victory parade and when the captain sees but doesn't recognise the unresponsive Andrei, he shouts: "Are you alive?"

Throughout Live and Remember, there’s a constant feeling of the hardness of life: the opening scenes riff on shots of and discussions about axes - vital to life in this harsh landscape. When Andrei steals a calf, there’s a montage of their eyes – beseeching? apologetic? hopeless? - before he brings down the axe.

Alexander and Gennadi Karyuk’s wintry cinematography (underlined by constant, snow-squeaking shoes) is slightly warmed by Roman Dormindoshin’s music which, though often gently minimalist, occasionally rises to muted melody.

Though Rasputin (like many writers) tends not to enjoy adaptations of his work, the appropriately named Dariya Moroz, who plays Nastya, helped kick-start the film after starring in a stage production. Book-ended by the actors playing an old Siberian game, that was dropped for the film and a new coda written. Predictably he though the film was OK but disliked the changes.

Playing Andrei, Mikhail Evlanov is something of a feature in the festival. To judge from this and his other roles, he obviously enjoys make-up and in Live and Remember he is gradually transformed from merely unkempt to being a kind of wild-man. Disillusioned, he destroys his medals and attempts suicide, in contrast with the village’s returning hero, Maxim Vologzhin.

Though there might initially be a whiff of The Return of Martin Guerre, we’re soon reassured that Andrei is indeed who he claims, but Nastya’s reminiscences of their happy marriage are brutally cut short by Andrei’s ruthless self-assessment as a wife-beater and a deserter: a double-criminal.

Counterpointing the two younger leads is veteran Sergei Makovetsky as Andrei's hyper-intense father, cannily putting together the clues about Andrei, but struggling to do the best for both his son and the village. His age and gammy leg explain why he isn’t at the front, highlighting suspicions about the young village leader, a drunken bully ironically named Nestor. Several smaller parts are taken by non-professionals. Presumably they were brought in from Irkutsk (it was actually shot around Nizhny Novgorod) to help with the peculiar local accent, which caused the Russian actors (and some Russian audiences) a bit of trouble. Following on from Rasputin, Proshkin and Moroz both wanted to contrast rural and urban outlooks: four country people, practicality – like Nastya binging food to Andrei – is a stronger expression of love than for urbanites.

Unsurprisingly, Live and Remember is a bit reminiscent of Farewell – the overwhelmingly female cast facing intense difficulties, and, in its whiteness and moral contemplations, Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976): the title is a grim reminder of Andrei’s fate, to live on and be tormented by his memories. It also has the sensitivity to rural life that Proshkin showed in The Cold Summer of ’53 (1987). But it’s its own film, and, if it isn’t quite Farewell’s equal, it's certainly an outstanding achievement. Sadly, it was given a fairly limited release in Russia (though it was well-received) but, hopefully, success on the festival circuit will help its profile, while it's also been released on DVD.

* Given the project’s birth pangs, it’s ironic that the name derives from the Russian for ‘Brother’

Live and Remember (Живи и помни; Zhivi i pomni, 2008)
Farewell to Matyora (Прощание с Матёрой; Proshchai s Matyoroi, 1983)
K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (КШЭ: Комсомол – шеф электрификации; Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii, 1932)
The Ascent (Восхождение; Voskozhdenie, 1976)
The Cold Summer of ’53 (Холодное лето пятьдесят третьего; Kholodnoe leto piatdesiat tretevo, 1987)

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