Friday, August 25, 2023

Muratova’s Brief Encounters

As a district committee councilor, Valya should be shining example of socialist feminism. Unfortunately, she cannot get much done or get much respect from colleagues. She doesn’t even mind that much, because she enjoys the mantle of authority, for its own sake. That makes her the polar opposite of her husband Maksim, but that is why she can’t let go of him. It turns out the same is also true of her new housekeeper. It is a classic love triangle, but the off-kilter presentation got it banned during the Soviet era. Viewers can judge it for themselves when Ukrainian Kira Muratova’s freshly restored Russian-language Brief Encounters opens today in New York.

Valya is super-organized in the office, but terrible at house chores. That will be Nadia’s job. The socially awkward young woman from the countryside will be Valya’s new live-in help. She is home much more than Maksim, who quite surprises Nadia when he finally turns up. Her first [moderately] big city job was at the neighborhood bar Maksim used to frequent with his fellow geologists.

They sound like scientists, but they live more like troubadours or tramps. It is an itinerant lifestyle, ostensibly surveying the countryside gold and silver, but they devote more of their time to drinking and singing folk songs.

That might not sound like your commie uncle’s Socialist Realism, but so what? Most critics just assumed the Soviet authorities rejected Muratova’s fractured narrative and Nouvelle Vague-like techniques. The presence of Vladimir Vysotsky, the popular underground folksinger often surveilled by the KGB, probably did not help either.

However, Muratova’s portrayal of apparatchik corruption includes more arsenic than a lot of critics realized. At one point, she tells Maksim the story of a man who suddenly lost his running water because his neighbor, Valya’s former crooked boss, lost his position and privileges. It turns out his floor’s water supply was only for his benefit.

You have heard wokesters belittle “first world problems.” In 1960s Ukraine, having running water constituted a very real “second world problem.” Tellingly, Valya adamantly refuses to allow on new housing project to open, because the state developer cannot manage to get the water running to the pipes. Yet, Valya is taking all the heat from approved residents, because they are desperate to move out of the single-room dwellings they share with multiple families. Given these sequences, it is easier to understand why Soviet censors took a good hard look at
Brief Encounters and said “nope, not a chance.”

Muratova herself plays Valya with unusual mix of arrogance and vulnerability. Vysotsky was born to play Maksim, who obviously shares a kinship with the Bohemian bluegrass-strumming post-WWII Czechoslovakian “tramps.” However, Nina Ruslanova is too inscrutably reserved for viewers to understand her often impetuous behavior.

Brief Encounters shares a kinship with the great European art cinema of its era. That does not always best serve the love triangle melodrama, but it is consistently interesting cinema, with more satirical bite than it is getting credit for. Highly recommended, Brief Encounters opens today (8/25) in New York.