Monday, February 07, 2011

The Wild East: Cold Summer of ’53

News traveled slowly to the outer Republics. One provincial Soviet town had no idea Khrushchev’s De-Stalinization campaign was underway, but it has immediate repercussions for them all in Aleksandr Proshkin’s Cold Summer of ’53, which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s The Wild East, a retrospective of vintage Soviet action films set in the Central Asian Republics starting this Friday.

Chaff and Spade sound like buddy-cops, but they have been deemed criminals—“enemies of the people,” in fact. The older Spade once traveled abroad, thus making him a “British spy,” whereas the younger Chaff had the misfortune of briefly being captured by the Germans during WWII. They are former political gulag inmates serving the balance of their sentences in exile somewhere in North East. If not warmly welcoming, the villagers accept the political criminals in their midst. Unfortunately, they will soon encounter a band of real criminals up-close-and-personal.

Bitterly disillusioned, the regional militia officer Mankov takes grim satisfaction informing the village apparatchik of Beria’s denouncement. The former interior minister’s general amnesty of the gulag’s legitimate criminal element has made his life much harder. Naturally, “political” convicts like Chaff and Spade were unaffected, but there would be cause for hopeful speculation if they knew how the winds were blowing. However, they have more immediate concerns when the marauding gang of former “thieves by law” takes the town hostage. With the town’s Communist figureheads either dead or instinctively kowtowing to their new bosses, it is up to Chaff and Spade to give them the Die Hard treatment.

Proshkin and screenwriter Edgar Dubrovsky reportedly slipped the political context into Summer while filming was underway. Even by Glasnost standard, it is still remarkably outspoken about the Stalin-era repression for a Soviet film. Still, it is rather clear they were reluctant to address “Uncle Joe” directly, laying responsibility for the great purges specifically at Beria’s feet. Indeed, just who did he work for and how much autonomy do they suppose he had? Be that as it may, Summer forthrightly condemns the Gulag justice administered under his watch, lamenting the wasted lives that resulted. Proshkin does so especially subtly and poetically in one of the closing scenes of the Summer’s exteneded denouement.

As an action film, Summer is certainly serviceable, getting an intense anti-hero turn from the Daniel Craig-looking Valery Priyomykhov as Chaff. In his final screen role, Soviet comedic actor Anatoly Papanov adds a genuine note of pathos as Spade. Frankly, the real villains are not the hostage takers (mostly generic, except for their wiry ringleader with a Napoleon complex), but the cringe-inducing village authority figures, who earn the audience’s contempt in spades. Perhaps the film’s only drawback is its rather stereotypical depiction of Soviet women, particularly the insensitive portrayal of the deaf matronly Lydia, the mother of the buxom Shura.

The comparison between Soviet Easterns and the American Westerns is particularly apt in the case of Summer. Proshkin and cinematographer Boris Brozhovsky capture a vivid sense of the region’s big skies and rugged landscape. Having in effect lost his name, Chaff certainly shares a kinship with Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter as well. Undeniably a film of its moment, Summer was an enormous hit when first released in the dissolving USSR, yet in retrospect it still holds an intriguing appeal for both action and art-house audiences. Though a bit of ringer, it is a welcome inclusion in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Wild East series, when it screens this Friday (2/11) and the following Tuesday (2/15) at the Walter Reade Theater.