WEDNESDAY
poses a question many new-millennium film fans have likely asked
themselves – Is there a reason to watch a Stalinist musical comedy? –
and offers three good answers with
“Cossacks of the Kuban” (1949).”
This Ivan Pyrev Mosfilm production is a classic late-totalitarian
fun-on-the-collective-farm eye-‘n’-ear-popper that is worth your while
for (1) what it tells us about the other-worldly duality of its era; (2)
its value as a technical achievement; and (3) its actual entertainment,
in particular the songs.

A
few historical details: The film’s working title was “The Happy Market
Fair” (“Весёлая ярмарка”), but upon screening the (first) final version,
Stalin (a) rechristened it as above and (b) uttered the infamous phrase
– equally frightening if taken as irony, cynicism or simply Grand
Delusion – “So things on the agricultural front are pretty good after
all” (“А всё-таки неплохо у нас обстоит с сельским хозяйством”). To
which everybody in the room doubtless replied “Right, chief!”

One
of the first Soviet color productions (and shot on film from the famed
Shostkinsky factory), “Cossacks” is an eyeful, certainly, with the
kolkhoz market at its center looking like nothing less than an
astonishing Horn of Plenty. That such earthly riches represented pure
fantasy in the impoverished Soviet countryside of 1949 was self-evident –
so much so that Nikita Khrushchev’s criticism of the film when he
pulled it from circulation in 1956 (“It covers reality with a coat of
lacquer”) amounted to restating the obvious.

Reality
was never the point; diversion-distraction-escapism was. But when
“Cossacks” was re-released in 1968 after a de-Stalinizing “restoration,”
director Pyrev’s movie had essentially lost the one character people
really needed to escape from – the Man Behind the Curtain, to whom no
attention was now paid. Still, while the original version of “Cossacks”
is still locked away (alas), Isaak Dunaevsky’s great score and upbeat
songs remain in the post-cult edition, and they are very real cultural
heritage.

“Cossacks”
can infuriate people, of course – especially senior citizens who
themselves recall 1949 as rural disaster victims – but that doesn’t make
the film less expertly crafted or historically symbolic. If Leni
Riefenstahl’s Third Reich epics are worth watching and learning from, so
is this – and “Cossacks” has catchy songs!

Cossacks of the Kuban / Кубанские казаки. Dom Kino, Wednesday at 10 p.m. and Thursday at 9:25 a.m.

THURSDAY night brings another classic and a new documentary about its maker as Kultura airs Larisa Shipitko’s remarkable “Ascension” (1976) followed immediately by the Konstantin Golenchik feature “The Golgotha of Larisa Shipitko” (2017). Both deserve big small-screen audiences.

“Ascension”
represented a signal contribution to the national cinema archive that
also drew immediate attention abroad: It won, among many honors, the
Soviet Union’s first Golden Bear at Berlin. Adapted by Yury Klepikov and
Shipitko from Vasil Bykov’s celebrated novella “Sotnikov,” the film
tells the story of two partisans captured by the Wehrmacht in rural
Belarus during the bleak winter of 1942.

How
they perceive, debate and then deal with their fate has led the film to
be called both “an existential parable about the value of life” and “an
arresting cinematic sermon rife with Christian imagery” – each of which
tells you that, at the very least, we are a long way indeed here from a
standard Soviet war movie of the late Brezhnev era. “Ascension” has
also been called a “shattering” film, and viewers should be advised that
the Ales Adamovich account of hard men weeping at an initial closed
screening in 1976 is not difficult to believe.

The
fate of the movie’s director also gives one pause, as Golenchik makes
clear in his documentary. Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko
at the State Film Institute (VGIK), after which she made three features
with evident skill and ascending mastery of the medium before her
untimely death in a car accident at 41 – a terrible loss for both those
close to her (starting with director Elem Klimov, her husband) and for
the Soviet film enterprise in general.

“Golgotha”
tells the story of how Shipitko came to make her final film: confined
to a hospital after an earlier accident, the director read and reread
two books – Bykov’s “Sotnikov” and the Bible – and gradually decided
that a movie had to be made of the former under the influence of the
latter. Which she did.

Ascension [aka The Ascent]/Восхождение. Kultura, Thursday at 9:35 p.m.

The Golgotha of Larisa Shipitko / Голгофа Ларисы Шепитько. Kultura, Thursday at 11:45 p.m.

Late FRIDAY night Kultura once again opens its Portrait of a Generation rubric, this time for “Drifting”
(2011), a love story (of sorts) set among Moscow undergrads with a lot
of time on their hands. This was Anton Zaitsev’s first feature, and it
demonstrated at the very least that the writer-director knew how to
borrow effectively from good sources and get himself noticed for it.

Like
Julie Taymor’s marvelous “Across the Universe,” whose action is
centered on Beatles’ songs, “Drifting” is based on early works by the
legendary Soviet rock singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990); and in
the spirit of the French New Wave of the 1950s-60s (“Cinema is truth
twenty-four times per second
”), Zaitsevclearly
didn’t want anything to slip by him: as one critic put it, “The
director is his own version of Godard, getting everything he can down on
film as he tries to catch the rhythm of life and show the uniqueness of
each moment.”

What
Zaitsev got down wasn’t a great movie, in the end, but it was an
engaging Youth Angst feature that brought him a well-deserved Best Debut
Director nomination from the Russian Film Critics Guild. Anton Shagin
is somehow both affecting and affected as the rocker-idler Solovei, and
you come away from “Drifting” with the feeling that both he and the
director have a great deal ahead of them. Tune in and catch this
promising vision of both “back in the day.”

Drifting [aka The Idlers] / Бездельники. Kultura, Friday at 11:50 p.m.

Mark H. Teeter is the editor of Moscow TV Tonite on Facebook