Friday, August 25, 2023

Muratova’s The Long Farewell

She is Mommie Dearest in the Soviet Motherland. Yevgenia Vasilyevna Ustinova is a manipulative, domineering mother and she has no intention of changing any aspect of relationship with her son Sasha. However, when he decides to make a change, it sends her spiraling in Kira Muratova’s freshly restored, which opens today in New York.

Ustinova has very different ideas of what Ustinov should do, even including who he should marry. He might not necessarily disagree with the last part, but he seems to have finally realized their massively codependent relationship is toxic. Consequently, he has decided to move in with his father, who was long-estranged from his mother, even before he started teaching way out in Novosibirsk. Ustinov has not informed Ustinova of his decision yet, but she discovers it through her motherly snooping. That opens the floodgates for more compulsive behavior.

Brief Encounters, The Long Farewell was also censored by Soviet authorities soon after its release, for reasons that eluded most international critics. In this case, aesthetic issues are probably mostly to blame. At times, Farewell is almost Godard-like, particularly in Muratova’s use of repeated dialogue for an absurdist effect. This is most definitely not Socialist Realism. In fact, you would hardly know it takes place in the USSR. Nobody seems to building socialism or smashing capitalist. Rather to the contrary, much of what goes on appears rather decadent and unhealthy.

Still, it is worth noting Ustinov’s father is in Siberia, which perhaps implies he was once on the outs with the socialist regime. Conversely, Mother Ustinova works as a translator, which maybe implies some level of trust, since she must have contact with foreigners and outside sources of information. Then, there goes Sasha, choosing him over her.

Zinaida Sharko gives a spectacularly dark diva-like turn as Ustinova. This is the kind of emotionally intense performance Meryl Streep’s defenders like to pretend she gives, but she was never really capable of anything like this.

In a way, Sharko has to come on this strong, because Muratova does so much to draw attention her own style and techniques. Arguably,
Long Farewell and Brief Encounters could represent a two-film Ukrainian-Russian New Wave on their own. Yet, Sharko also helps Muratova uncork an ironically heartfelt counterpoint, when the Siberian-Tiger-Mom helps an elderly man with poor eyesight write a deeply loving and humane letter to his children, while they are both queueing in a post office.

Brief Encounters
is the better film, but Long Farewell is a flashier showcase for Muratova, as well as Sharko. It also illustrates the capricious nature of censorship—remember you could not see this film for decades in Russia or the other Captive Nations, for no obvious reason, so remember that the next time some on twitter or in the Department of Homeland Security advocates watering down the 1st Amendment. Recommended, but not quite to the extent of Brief Encounters, The Long Farewell opens today (8/25) in New York.