The Garden of Scorpions
written and directed by Oleg Kovalov
at the Harvard Film Archives
October 8 through 10
"Garden of Scorpions" (1991), a recent Russian film, has more to do with the Soviet past than with the Russian present. Written and directed by Oleg Kovalov, the film juxtaposes a basic story-line, re-edited from a 1955 film called "Corporal Kotschetkov's Romance," with footage from Soviet films of the period from the 20s to the early 50s.
The storyline of the generic 50s romance involves the love of a soldier and the evils of infiltrating capitalist spies. It unfolds as the screen switches from the storyline to footage from old Soviet films (such as musical performances) to shots of animals in a desert to shots of such natural wonders as volcanoes and snowdrifts to surreal images of a man with huge wings trying to fly. Moving back and forth between these disparate elements, the film nonetheless holds together convincingly.
There seem to be a few focuses to this surreal piece of cinema: the concept of performance, the phenomenon of mass gatherings and the role of the past in the evils of today.
A large portion of the 96 minutes is taken up with complete or spliced performances (Yves Montand sings two full songs). Unexpectedly, most of the music is very upbeat, consisting of everything from fast-paced Russian folk songs to French croonings to Elvis numbers. The almost cheerful nature of these theatrical and dance productions keeps attention high and makes the sequences involving the more mundane daily scenes all the more poignant.
The first love of the soldier and the woman of the village keeps the emotional intensity high throughout, while the rarely shown documentary footage is gripping because of its historical significance.
The film continually cuts to shots in a mental hospital of patients who are suffering from severe alcoholic delirium. Although it is unclear from what period these clips are taken, the message seems to be that the problems of the present--alcoholism--are caused by the troubles of the past--such as paranoia about espionage.
The shots of flowing lava, deserts and snow drifts suggest a wasteland, presumably Siberia, that, accompanied by haunting music, add to the sense of the impending doom of the love affair. The bizarre sequences involving a flying man form a stark contrast to the jovial musical scenes and make the film a surreal montage rather than a generic documentary.
"Garden of Scorpions" does drag towards the end, especially as the plot never gets any clearer.
Although many of the film's separate sequences return, creating a pattern rather than a random assortment, the repetition of similar scenes ultimately loses its appeal.