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‘A Forgotten Tune for the Flute’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 31, 1989


Eldar Ryazanov
Tatyana Dogileva
Not rated

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At the outset of the new Soviet film "A Forgotten Tune for the Flute," armies of bureaucrats, briefcases in hand, make their early-morning march to work while on the soundtrack, a folk singer regales us with a satiric ballad about the perils of perestroika. And if you weren't watching closely, you might think the images were lifted out of an American comedy from the '50s.

The major attraction of "A Forgotten Tune for the Flute" is its insights into everyday Soviet life. It takes us inside the apartments of privileged bureaucrats and less-well-off nurses and gives us a sense of the Soviet attitude toward cultural reform, careerism and sex. There's even a glimpse of how Soviet paramedics handle a heart attack emergency. As a glasnost document, it has something of interest to offer; as a movie, it's a rather drab occasion.

In a nutshell, the picture is a sort of lusterless Sovietization of "The Apartment." Though the stories are different, they have similar spirits. (The director, Eldar Ryazanov, has been dubbed the "Russian Billy Wilder" -- which I take as more of a dig at Wilder than a compliment to the Soviet.) Both movies deal satirically with office life and adultery; both present their protagonists as men under pressure. In the Soviet work, the hero is an official with the Leisure Time Directorate, which oversees the content of the country's literary and artistic work. Lenny (Leonid Filatov) is ambitious and on the rise within a department that is looking for men with enlightened, modern attitudes. "Anything goes" is how Lenny describes the current attitude toward censorship. "We ban nothing," he tells a member of a chorus whose repertoire is a trifle purple. "Everything is permitted."

Well, maybe not everything. The choir is sent on a tour of coastal towns (where apparently their influence will be less damaging), and when Lenny begins an affair with the young nurse (Tatyana Dogileva) who comes to administer the injections for his heart condition, his promotion is jeopardized. The course of this indulgence for Lenny, who lives well and is considered something of a catch, is cluttered with lots of surreptitious meetings, back-seat lovemaking and hiding under covers.

In theory, the combination of political satire and bedroom farce is tantalizing and preferable by far to the intellectual heavy-lifting in something like "Repentance." But in execution, the picture comes across as listless, pooped -- it's the most depressive farce you're ever likely to see.

Ryazanov can't seem to get a comic rhythm going; his scenes just sort of dribble out. The actors contribute blandly competent work, but there's no sparkle in their repartee and nothing chemical between them. Dogileva, who is a star of some wattage, comes across here as a dim combination of Elke Sommer and Doris Day. (Actually, a little of DD's perky energy would be a great help.) And from the looks of things, it's been some time since the dolorous Filatov got a full night's sleep. Overall, the picture induces cowlike indifference -- at one point, I realized that I had been staring at the screen in a kind of dazed stupor. Seen in context, this is, I'm sure, a revolutionary picture in the Soviet Union, but here it's like watching a compilation reel of the worst of Blake Edwards.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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