Love and Pigeons – 1985
Vladimir Menshov is one of those rare Soviet directors who won an Oscar. His coming-of-age story, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, was awarded Best Foreign Language Film in 1981.
However the Review’s choice fell on a subsequent comedy, Love & Pigeons. The rural theme is inherited from earlier motion pictures but Menshov’s approach reveals an evolution both in Soviet cinema and society.
The Village, Then and Now
“One trend revived from the 1920s and early 1930s became predominant: the bytovoy film. The term can be approximately translated as “slice-of-life” film. These are stories about contemporary society, individual lives and relations, current problems and human values,” writes Anna Lawton in her book Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time (1992).
Unlike Socialist Realist pictures like Traktoristi and Cossacks of the Kuban, two films that glorified Stalin’s Collectivization, Love and Pigeons aspires to realism. The story follows one family, the Kuzyakin, as they go on living their daily lives.
To the bountiful fields and patriotic songs of the black and white era, the film opposes bleak wooden houses and kitchen gardens. Instead of zealous workers we have Vassya Kuzyakin, a civil servant who is eager to be away on vacation. Indeed, after suffering work injuries, he is sent to recover at a seaside resort where he intends to take in all the enjoyments lacking at home, namely ‘go to the bar, try a cocktail’.
The film’s aesthetic with its minimalistic decor and economic plotline conveys all the dreariness of Brezhnev’s stagnation. Nonetheless, the story is filled with humor, one directly borrowed from the French Comédie de mœurs (Comedy of manners).
The Soviet Matriarch
Be it language, domestic quarrels, or a certain prudishness typical of the country, the cast captured rural and family life with such clinical precision that Soviet audiences could not help but laugh at so familiar a setup. Even Menshov’s personal beliefs had to be set aside for the sake of authenticity.
‘I am not fond of families where it is the woman who sets the tone,’ he said in a 2014 interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Yet the Kuzyakin household is one where the matriarch rules. Even after Vassya leaves the family for femme fatale Raissa Zakharovna, he again yields to female authority accepting to follow her strict diet of raw vegetables and a spoonful of grated cheese.
Film historian Alexander Pozdnyakov traces such female empowerment back to the Second World War. The contribution of Soviet women to the war effort considerably altered their image as the ‘weaker sex’. This, he argues, is apparent in a number of Soviet films and especially through Menshov’s heroines.
Humans, Flaws and All
Authenticity is further achieved with the director allowing his characters to have vices, two of which are adultery and alcoholism. Dyadya Mitya for instance, an elderly veteran and Vassya’s neighbor, devotes his entire screen time to the quest for liquor.
‘Goskino officials demanded that all scenes featuring alcohol be removed from the film but I firmly opposed it’ said Menshov to Gazeta Kultura in 2014. Indeed, Mitya’s character alone breaks the socialist ideal of country people with strong moral values and impeccable work ethics.
The intention was to paint a tableau of the present. In the director’s own words, “my initial plan was to make a movie with a documentary texture to it.” This realist approach to storytelling may have paved the way for the Chernukha films of the 1990s where drugs, prostitution and gang violence were openly portrayed on screen.
- Traktoristi (literally, The Traktor drivers), 1939, Ivan Pyryev
- Cossacks of the Kuban, 1949, Ivan Pyryev
- Stryapukha (The Cook in colloquial Russian), 1966, Edmond Keosayan
- The Story of Asya Klyachina, 1967, Andrey Konachalovskiy