Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pesnya o shchastye / Song About Happiness

Pesnya o shchastye / Song about Happiness. Mikhail Viktorov (Kavyrlya), Yanina Zhejmo (Anuk).

Песня о счастье / Pesn’ o sčast’e / [La canzone della felicità] / Pesnja o stshastje.
    Directors: Mark Donskoj, Vladimir Legošin. Year: 1934. Country: URSS.
    Scen.: Georgij Cholmskij con modifiche di Michail Blejman. F.: Nikolaj Ušakov. Scgf.: Semën Mejnkin. Mus.: Grigorij Lobačëv. Supervisione artistica: Sergej Jutkevič. Int.: Vladimir Gardin (il professore di musica), Janina Žejmo (Anuk), Michail Viktorov (Kavyrlja), Boris Tenin (Goroch), Boris Čirkov (capo del reparto disciplinare del carcere), Fëdor Nikitin (l’insegnante di musica), Ignatij Moskvin (il taglialegna di Lebedev), Leonid Kmit (Grjaznov), Nikolaj Mičurin (Lebedev / nonna di Anuk). Prod.: Vostokfilm. 35 mm. D.: 85’. Bn.
    Not released in Finland.
    Print from Gosfilmofond of Russia.
    Introduce Peter Bagrov.
    Viewed with e-subtitles in English and Italian at Sala Scorsese, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato (Second Utopia: 1934 – the Golden Age of Soviet Sound Film), 26 June 2018.

Peter Bagrov (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Mark Donskoj, an enfant terrible, a madman (or an actor – there still isn’t a consensus here), was rarely taken seriously by his Soviet colleagues. It was the adoring interest of the Italian neo-realists and later the critics of “Cahiers du cinéma” in his masterpieces The Gor’kij Trilogy (1937-39), Raduga (Rainbow, 1943) and Dorogoj cenoj (The Horse That Cried, 1958) that finally made Donskoj’s compatriots recognize his significance. Pesn’ o sčast’e is Mark Donskoj’s first sound film, and the first one where his aesthetics and philosophy are clearly visible."

"It was intended to be a film of little importance. As were all the pictures produced by Vostokfilm, a nomad film company cruising around the eastern part of the Soviet Union to portray the lives of the locals. Donskoj and his co-director Vladimir Legošin (three years later he directed one of the best Soviet films for children, Beleet parus odinokij / Lone White Sail) were to make a film about Maris, a Finno-Ugric people who lived in Russia along the Volga river."

"Neither Donskoj nor Legošin were interested in ethnography. But both were happy to choose ‘a man of nature’ as their protagonist. His activities were minimized, and the actor Michail Viktorov’s duty was to tactfully blend into trees and waters (Nikolaj Ušakov’s poetic photography was a vitally significant component here). Or into music – little relies on human speech, but a flute is almost a full-fledged character, and some of the most emotionally rich ‘dialogue’ and ‘monologue’ belongs to it."

"What was supposed to become yet another ‘optimistic drama’ (the beloved genre of the Soviets) about the formation of a class-conscious character turned into something between a fairy tale, a miracle-play and an eccentric comedy. Upon its release, Pesn’ o sčast’e was received gleefully. It was hard to tell what the film was about, but one thing was clear: Donskoj had an ability to turn whatever he touched into cinema." (Peter Bagrov)

AA: I was surprised to hear Peter Bagrov's introduction on Mark Donskoy. I was not aware how little he was regarded in Russia. In the West "the Gorky of the cinema" was admired for The Childhood of Gorky and At High Cost, "the Tristan and Isolde of Ukraine", and many other films full of passion and genuine cinematic grandeur. Personally I have had a special fondness for Foma Gordeev, the growing-up story of a rich merchant's son with an epic sense of life on the Volga.

Donskoy usually focused on pre-revolutionary history and rarely depicted Soviet reality with the exception of the war years. Perhaps the experience of Song About Happiness helps explain. Kavyrlya, the wild boy from the woods, is taken into prison, and Gulag is the best thing that can happen to him. This preposterous propaganda plot must have felt embarrassing for Donskoy.

Donskoy's great theme was education understood in the most profound way. He showed people living in ignorance and conditions of backwardness. "In Gorky I was always fascinated by the theme of suppressed talent, the man of the people whose talent remains unfulfilled when in other circumstances, in a society of true freedom, it might shine in the colours of the rainbow".

Song About Happiness is the first film in which Donskoy finds this dearest theme of his. The boy from the backwoods becomes a master musician. And the girl from the backwoods gets educated, as well, defying her community who does everything to belittle and discourage her. The love story is unconventional. The boy is determined to change his identity and denies the girl, too, for a very long time.

Song About Happiness is not a good film: often clumsy, often uneven, yet with much to like. Besides the deeply felt theme of education there is the sense of nature, and especially the river, the key element for Gorky and Donskoy with all its symbolic values present in a fresh and original fashion. The river is more specifically usually the Volga as it is even here.

The protagonists stem from the Mari people, but I am unable to comment on the accuracy of the details of Mari life. The Mari (the Cheremis) are a Finno-Ugric people from the bend of the Volga. The Maris are the only European people among whom ancient nature worship survives as a living tradition. This sense is vaguely reflected in Song About Happiness.

For instance the fascinating theme of the ban of the image is dealt with. Image means death.

The Mari intelligentsia fell victim to genocide under Stalin's Great Terror. All learned Maris were executed or perished in the Gulag in the 1930s. Knowing this casts a special shadow on the young lovers of Song About Happiness.

A special feature in Song About Happiness is that there are passages of dialogue and even a final speech in the Mari language, untranslated. Also Mari language newspapers are on display. It would be interesting to hear a Mari commenting all this.

Fine performances by Mikhail Viktorov whose other films I have not seen and Yanina Zhejmo, one of the most prominent actresses of the Soviet cinema since the earliest films of Kozintsev and Trauberg.

Boris Chirkov (the lead actor of the Maxim trilogy) is seen as the fair and firm prison camp commander. With leaders like him the Gulag would have been the best place on Earth. The professor of the conservatory is played by none other than Vladimir Gardin (1877–1965), a great figure of the Russian cinema, director and actor from 1912 until 1950, and a founder of the VGIK film school.

The music score is wonderful, ranging from simple folk tunes to revelations in J. S. Bach at the Conservatorium, with the flute being the lead instrument as observed by Peter Bagrov above.

The visual quality is often good enough  but sometimes the sources have been inferior.

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