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A Surprising Soviet Chekhov

Uncle Vanya which premiered in New England at the Harvard Square last week, and should return soon

By Barbara A. Slavin

DR. ASTROV, the most enlightened character in Uncle Vanya queries: "Will those who live 100-200 years from now remember us with a kind word?"

Judging from the new Soviet film version of the Chekhov play, the answer is an emphatic yes. Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky has directed a delicate, moving rendition that successfully toes the line between full identification and bemused contempt, compassion for the characters and pity, that Chekhov is famous for.

Nowhere is felt the heavy hand of alist realism". Rather there is careful attention to realistic detail, as in the first long shot of the old country house--with its peeling paint, creaking doors and evanescent charm. Even the interjection of pictures of denuded forest lands and starving children are in context. They portray the stark contrasts between the idle gentry and the destitute peasantry which underly Chekhov's sense of a passing era.

Not that Chekhov or his characters can foresee how their social reality will change. Astrov (with Chekhov's intuition) is alone in recognizing that it must change. For the others, such problems "are not boring, they're simply beyond me," as the beautiful Yelena remarks at one point."

These characters do not understand how life can be any different. They can not even act on their private passions--how can they be expected to foresee a social revolution 20 years in the future?

Happily, such vision is not demanded of them. Politics is a side issue, both for Chekhov and in the film. With or without Russian historical background, we are drawn in by the lives of these people: the self-centered professor, who has been writing about art for 25 years "without knowing anything about art:" Yelena, his completely provocative and utterly directionless young wife: Sonya, his fresh, intelligent young daughter, stuck in the country for the rest of her days; Vanya himself, who could have been "a Dostoevsky or a Schopenhauer" if not for 25 years of "stupid, dirty provincial life;" and Dr. Astrov, who despite his intelligence and energy will sink--with the help of the vodka bottle--into Vanya's vulgarity and hopelessness after another 10 years.

NOT THAT the movie is uniformly gray. Chekhov intended his plays to be comedy of a sort, and the comic moments are not lost in the film. Vanya's senile mother reads her pamphlets on the emancipation of women and smokes cigarettes (which seems to encompass her idea of emancipation). Astrov gives a stirring rendition of the weather report when Vanya interrupts his seduction of Irina--an example of the Chekhovian principle that the words we exchange in conversation don't mean a damn thing. And Vanya, the prototype useless intellectual, constantly brings a smile of recognition with his temper tantrums.

The acting in this film is marvelous, particularly Innokenty Smoktunosky's Vanya. His petulant spats with his maman, his grandiose pretensions, his weepy self-pity; the sarcastic facial expressions alone are phenomenal. Sergei Bondarchuk, as Dr. Astrov, is a bit too much the Russian bear for my taste. Astrov's passions are too often expressed by the tremor of voice and moistness of eye that Omar Sharif made infamous in Dr. Zhivago. But he can be subtle when necessary as in his scenes with Sonya, in which he delicately and deftly refuses her offer of love.

But the highest praise goes to Irina Kupchenko's Sonya. I remember at my first viewing of the film feeling that this Sonya was too young and pretty to be Chekhov's Sonya: I envisioned a cowish sort of girl--hardworking, trusting, basically provincial and unstimulating. The Sonya in the film is so captivating that I couldn't imagine why Astrov did not immediately fall in love with her.

The second time through, however, this reading made perfect sense to me. In fact, it creates the most poignant moments in the film. Because Sonya is so lovely, Astrov's rejection of her is all the more telling. He admits himself that it is too late for him: he is too coarsened, too disillusioned. A relationship with a young girl would be absurd at this point. The pure sensuality of an affair with Yelena is more apropos of his desires and his capacity to act. Meanwhile, Sonya will fade away in the country, and it is her tragedy--the tragedy of the one person still alive and vital--that touches the viewer most deeply.

Soviet films have had a spotty history. I've seen so many crude melodramas about the Civil War (featuring the noble peasants and workers led by some selfless fellow curiously resembling Lenin) that they've even lost their sense of camp for me. But the day of such films is clearly past. The understanding, subtlety and just plain good taste with which Uncle Vanya has been produced is clear evidence of and high tribute to the rising quality of Soviet films.

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