The chapter on Soviet movies in the 1981 edition of the International Film Guide includes the delightful news that Moscow audiences finally got to see such timely and richly rewarding American movies as "The Domino Principle" and "White Line Fever." If exchanges of cinematic culture between The Great Powers are usually conducted at this level, a certain apprehension may be justified when one contemplates "Soviet Cinema Today," a selection of 11 unknown Russian features that will be shown in repertory at the Key for the next two weeks, courtesy of an importer called International Film Exchange in association with Sovexportfilm.
Unfortunately, three of the four entries screened in advance for the press turned out to be pretty paralyzing, although keenly curious foreign film patrons and language teachers may find them intriguing and useful, respectively.
Recent editions of the International Film Guide supply no reliable clues to the seven unscreened entries, but the two that strike me as worth a gamble are "The Take-Off," a biographical drama about the rocket scientist Tziolkovsky, played by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and "The Bodyguard," which appears to be a remake of "Yojimbo" transposed to a Central Asian setting in the 1920s. The latter is scheduled for three showings tomorrow only.
In ascending order of droopiness, the screened films are titled "A Woman for Gavrilov," "Valentina" and "Portrait of the Artist's Wife." Perhaps a rebuke to that outrageous Oscar winner "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears," "A Woman for Gavrilov" is a wistful, dilatory tear-jerker set in Odessa, where they seem to shed happy tears without a trace of shame.
"Valentina" is mercilessly static but a genuine stylistic oddity because of the apparent disinclination of director Gleb Panfilov to move his cameras unless whimsically inspired to do so. Adapted from a successful play that seems to deserve a title like "Teahouse of the Siberian Melancholics," it's a chronicle of the long day's journey into night of a group of professionally and romantically stymied exiles who congregate around the porch of a small cafe' in a remote lumbering outpost, ordering occasional eats and repeatedly eating their hearts out over unrequited passions.
There's something almost funny about Panfilov's affinity for immobility. Having transposed a stage setting to an authentic exterior, he then insists on shooting the scenes from static, inexpressive and sometimes ultra-faraway angles. Instead of using the camera for a more intimate scrutiny of a play, he perversely makes you feel as if you've got a seat in the last row of the third balcony of the theater in the next town. Another unaccountably funny touch: Everything happens slowly in "Valentina" except the delivery of the customers' orders, which arrive with miraculous promptness from the cafe''s kitchen. An inside joke, no doubt.
The deadly "Portrait of the Artist's Wife," directed by a drudge named Alexander Pankratov, is a penny-dreadful Can This Marriage Be Saved? story in which it's screamingly apparent that the troubled union--between a frosty engraver of bird illustrations and his unhappy, acquisitive wife -- can't and shouldn't be saved but that the conventions of the genre dictate that the mismates reconcile anyway. Nikita Mikhalkov, a matinee idol who's also a prestige director ("A Slave of Love" and "Oblomov") turns up as the director of the dilapidated, depressing summer colony for artsy types and their dependents where the husband and wife, Pasha and Nina, do the bulk of their moping about. The big daytime recreation is mushroom gathering, but the pace picks up slightly after dark.
Mikhalkov's character is supposed to give the heroine a bit of an adulterous flutter, but the atmosphere is too enervating for anything to get started. He drives her out in the middle of the lake in a speedboat but realizes the futility of it all and settles for a quick plunge in the brine. He also seems to be expressing everyone's secret thought when he says, "If you were my wife I'd walk out on you," but this material is so strait-laced that the remark is meant to flatter dreary Nina -- she deserves better than a cad like him.