It has taken the censors more than two years to decide whether the film should be shown to the Soviet public, but since its release in February, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" has taken Moscow by storm.
Given all the talk about the latest feature film by director Alexei Gherman, many foreign residents have gone to see it after valiant struggles to obtain tickets. Most have left perplexed and baffled by what the fuss was all about.
For the film, which has had such an impact on Soviet audiences that they have packed every performance since it opened even though it is not advertised, is basically without a plot or in-depth characterization. It is done in the style resembling the French nouvel roman, seeking to evoke atmosphere through disjointed scenes and unconnected episodes.
What made "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" an instant hit here was its subject matter and the way it deals with it. It is the first Soviet nonpropagandistic movie about the 1930s.
The 1930s constitute one of the most traumatic periods in Soviet history. It was the decade of the Great Terror, marked by Stalin's cruel dictatorship, the gulags, forcible collectivization of the countryide, mass purges and executions of "enemies of the people" -- brutalities on a monumental scale.
One of the most curious aspects of Soviet life is the existence of collective amnesia about certain turbulent periods in Soviet history.
Ask anyone under 50 what he or she knows about the 1930s and the answer invariably would be a blank stare. Nothing, or next to nothing, your interlocutor eventually would admit. If there are family tales of suffering and misery, you occasionally can hear a person say, they had better not be revived.
History books and documentary and feature films have all skirted around the traumatic decade as if their authors deliberately sought to spare their audiences from pain.
What is written or shown about the 1930s deals almost exclusively with the country's industrialization. Historical accounts of the period read like reports of a large construction company, with statistics to demonstrate a steady growth in the number of power plants, machine tool factories or steel complexes.
Films about the 1930s show a country happily engaged in construction projects, with a patriotic and pure average man as the hero supposedly enjoying bliss through the self-denial demanded by the building of communism.
Now comes "Ivan Lapshin," a dashing young policeman to narrate scenes from his life and contrast them to those remembered by him as a little boy. There is no apparent story line except that the director takes his viewers to a small Russian town to give them a feeling of what it was like to live in the 1930s.
That the audiences sit riveted throughout this slow-paced film reflects a widespread curiosity here about this traumatic decade.
For an average viewer, the film seems to be a tentative step toward a more honest look at a period that has affected the country so profoundly. It is as if the director had sought to reconstruct something that is largely missing in the intellectual baggage carried by the younger generations.
Lapshin is the head of a small police unit hunting a band of criminals engaged in thievery and smuggling. The unit is joined by a journalist on assignment.
The movie seeks to recreate faithfully the grim physical conditions of life. Food is scarce, people live in jammed hostels or cramped communal apartments. Yet the rigors of life lead them to assist and support one another in a spirit of camaraderie that does not exist here anymore.
The plot takes the viewers into wretched, dank jails filled with crouching prisoners. The viewer expects the plot to develop in the direction of a gangster movie, but it never does.
We see Lapshin mercilessly interrogating an old man and finally leading an armed raid on a ramshackle home in the suburb where the criminals are hiding. It is a scene of abysmal poverty where an old man suddenly stabs the journalist with his knife.
Lapshin, who has become friendly with the journalist, furiously rushes the wounded man to a hospital and then personally leads the hunt. Even though the criminal gives himself up and raises his hands, Lapshin kills him in cold blood.
If there is a subplot in the film, it involves Lapshin's friends, actors and actresses in the local theater. This is the beau monde of the day and it provides the director with an opportunity to use the theater in the way the American movie "Cabaret" did in dealing with the same period in Nazi Germany.
But Gherman avoids politics, although there are pictures in the background of Communist luminaries of the 1930s, including Stalin. There are no kulaks (rich farmers) or other "enemies of the people" shown, no idealized workers heroically building communism, no construction projects.
What transpires on the screen is boring, everyday life, devoid of party propaganda. But audiences nevertheless detect in the process the major aspect of that life -- terror, poverty and endless hardship. And while other audiences would find the whole enterprise tedious, Soviet audiences see it as an exciting peek into a decade that has been repressed and obliterated from their collective memory.
Soviet reviewers, however, have been cautious in assessing the film. They have emphasized the qualities of Lapshin's generation in coping with the hardships of the period.
As one reviewer put it, Lapshin was a strong, hearty and pure man. Those qualities, he said, characterized the generation that managed "to withstand the blow" of Nazi Germany and emerge victorious in World War II.