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Arts + CultureMoviesRoxie and BAMPFA film series open to Eurasian cinematic...

Roxie and BAMPFA film series open to Eurasian cinematic back chapters

Ukraine director Kira Muratova gets her due (sans Soviet censorship), Roxie goes Continental noir.

There is something to be said for government subsidizing of film production, which is common in many countries that are not the US—often, precisely to preserve some local cultural imprint in a medium dominated by Hollywood product. Of course, that brings the risk of governmental favoritism, censorship, and politicizing of artistic content.

Few careers provided a more colorful (despite her primarily B&W output) illustration of those benefits and pitfalls than that of Kira Muratova, who was professionally active for about six decades before she passed away in 2018 at age 83. Thus, she worked under several Soviet regimes, then post-Soviet ones—her final feature coming out in 2012, which means that the Romanian-born, Ukraine-based director (whose training and films were Russian-language) did not address the schism forced by subsequent invasions by Putin’s military forces.

But her work had been implicitly, sometimes explicitly critical enough all along to raise the ire of authorities. The BAMPFA series “Odessa’s Uncompromising Eccentric: The Films of Kira Muratova,” which runs this Sat/1 through May 14, offers an overview of a unique screen ouevre, including some titles that spent years being banned by officials after completion. Despite the setbacks that this disapproval caused, it is depressing to note the USSR’s superficial commitment to gender equality still meant she accrued a feature filmography more substantial than pretty much any American woman director you could name during the same era of Cold War thaw.

‘Brief Encounters’

After making a couple initial projects with her first husband Olexander Muratova, she created something of a sensation with her 1967 solo debut Brief Encounters, the only film (by any director) in which she also plays a lead role. In basic premise, it sounds like a stock romantic potboiler: Valentina (Muratova, looking a bit like Giulietta Masina, minus the cutesiness) is a busy district Party functionary whose career demands aren’t ideal for maintaining a relationship with self-professed “slacker” boyfriend Maxim (famous, controversial Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky), a geologist who’s seldom in town anyway. It takes us, and the characters, quite a while to realize that he’s also become involved with country girl Nadja (Nina Ruslanova)—who by complete coincidence has just arrived to take a job as Valentina’s housekeeper. More neo-realist than soap-operatic, the film displeased authorities by emphasizing the complex individuality of people who may serve the State, but whose discontents reflect its own systemic failures.

‘Long Farewell’

That impressive first feature introduced an element that would frequently surface in Muratova’s work: The exasperating, non-committal male object of long-suffering women’s desire. But it was primarily a drama, and her signature tenor of cruel-yet-empathetic behavioral comedy would emerge with 1971’s The Long Farewell. Like Bertolucci’s Luna a few years later, it is entirely concerned with the relationship between a somewhat overbearing mother and the teenage son seeking escape.

The former (Zinaida Sharko) is a divorced professional translator, her Sasha (Oleg Vladimirsky) a student who spends summers with an otherwise long-absent father. Her coloratura voice already prone to climb hysterical heights at the drop of a hat, mom begins to panic when she senses his formative pangs of independence. Indeed, exhausted by her neediness, he is hoping to permanently move in with dad. But the maternal bond that both strangles and placates will be difficult for either of them to break. Sharko’s figure is enough to drive anyone mad. Yet even at her most grating, she communicates the pathos of the discarded. This caustic psychodrama so distressed the Soviet censors that it was banned until 1987, when perestroika policies let a number of films out of celluloid gulag.

‘Asthenic Syndrome’

The next film in the BAMPFA retrospective (though she made others in between) has the distinction of purportedly being the only feature to be made and banned during perestroika. No wonder: The Asthenic Syndrome, which was finally released in 1991, is a Rube Goldbergian whatsit whose impudent progress begins with a government official’s chaotic funeral, its subsequent unpredictable turns including some very meta commentary on film, society, and movie-watching itself.

Also shown a couple months ago in the institution’s “Cinema of the Absurd: Eastern European Film, 1958-89” series, it has been termed both the “last Soviet film” and the “first post-Soviet” one. While she has been compared to other talents (as well as called incomparable) here and elsewhere, Muratova’s closest contemporary in many respects is Aleksey German of Hard to Be a God and Khrustalyov, My Car!—who in an even more bureaucratially-beleaguered career managed to make just six features in 45 years. They share an almost giddy, carnivalesque take on bitter lives and pervasive injustices … though their takes are very much differentiated by gender perspective, for starters.

‘The Tuner’

Pushing an unequally-armed battle of the sexes to the brink of farce is her 2004 The Tuner, in which two spinster ladies (Nina Ruslanova, Alla Demidova) sharing an apartment are flattered by the attentions of the titular free-ranging pianist (Georgiy Deliev), though he could scarcely be a more obvious “lonely hearts” con artist. What’s worse, he’s got an avaricious, amoral, Hanna Schygulla-looking girlfriend (Renata Litvinova) who’d happily murder the hapless dames to shake loose any spare change. “I want to trust people so much,” one of our heroines sighs, and we sure wish she didn’t.

A frenetically spinning top that (like the more conceptually sprawling Asthenic) is over 2.5 hours long, this is a black comedy in which gullibility dismays as well as amuses, and a caper we experience little joy in seeing pulled off. Again, the desperation of women for male companionship—no matter how unworthy of them—is seen as a kind of pervasive affliction that makes them older, yet never any wiser.

‘Sentimental Policeman’

1992’s The Sentimental Policeman, which sounds somewhat atypical (not least as a French co-production), was not available for preview. But Muratov provided an astringent capstone to her career and this series two decades later with Eternal Homecoming. Its protagonists are a man and a woman reunited after many years, though not by romantic bond. In fact, he wants her advice on whether he should stick with his wife, or run off with the mistress he’s been cheating on her with. When his old acquaintance shrugs this dilemma off as none of her concern, he whines about how “callous” and “soulless” she is, apparently fully expecting she’ll solve these problems of his own faithless, self-piteous making.

This scene repeats itself, albeit as played by different actors in different settings, a range of performer ages and acting styles we gradually realize is being watched in an (onscreen) screening room by filmmakers considering casting options. The effect is a little like the surreal sitcom sendup of viral hit Too Many Cooks, using seriocomic conventions to create a loop of infinite subtle variety. It’s an experiment in form, but also an affirmation of the shit women put up with in a bottomless ocean of manbabies.

For full program, schedule and ticket info on “Odessa’s Uncompromising Eccentric: The Films of Kira Muratova” at Berkeley’s BAMPFA April 1-May 14, go here.

Henri Detcoin’s ‘Retour à l’aube’ screens at the Roxie as part of Midcentury Productions’ “The Other Side of The Lost Continent 2023″ series. Image courtesy of Roxie Theater

Another forum for cinematic back chapters seldom much seen (at least in the US) before is Midcentury Productions’ “The Other Side of The Lost Continent 2023” series, which runs at SF’s Roxie Theater this Sat/1 through April 9. It extends LA-based programmer Don Malcolm’s prior explorations of Continental noir and other as yet under-revived genres to a survey of 18 French features from the 1930s and ‘40s, eras whose achievements suffered from retrospective derision and neglect once the nouvelle vague look hold in the late 1950s.

While there are a few famous directorial names included (most notably Rene Clair and Max Ophuls), most of the films here are from talents whose reputations declined as fashions changed, or who were never much known abroad at all—names like Louis Valray, Henri Decoin, Jean Delannoy, Christian-Jaque, and Albert Valentin. The first four programs march steadily through the Thirties, a fine period for French cinema, with tantalizing rediscoveries like the 1934 backlot exotica Amok, and double bills spotlighting two great stars of the era, Harry Baur and Danielle Darrieux.

Then there are two programs of features from the Occupation era, films whom global politics have largely withheld from wider circulation ever since, despite their lack of any particular propaganda content. Finally, there are four mostly late-‘40s titles featuring two perhaps less-familiar Gallic stars: Handsome Francois Perier, whose versatility sustained a long career on stage and screen, including later work for Cocteau, Fellini, Costa-Gavras, and Chabrol; and beautiful, accomplished Micheline Presle, who abandoned early home-turf success for a middling Hollywood run, then returned to factor in myriad films including cult favorite King of Hearts. (She may not be done yet—she is still alive at 100.)

Encompassing comedy, adventure, suspense, romance, and melodrama, the series’ diverse selections have in common that they have previously been very little-seen in the US, in some cases never before now. The Roxie calendar with links to more extensive notes on individual titles is here.

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