Tuesday, March 7, 2017

1980 Winner, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Directed by:  Vladimir Menshov

Distributor:  Mosfilm

Released:  February 1980

Country:  Soviet Union

“ . . . And the Oscar for Worst Title of a Movie goes to . . .  Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears!”  

Had Warren Beatty been announcing that category at the 53rd Academy Awards, I’d have no problem.  As it is, I’d like to think that in 1981, when Brooke Shields and Italian Director Franco Zeffirelli read the winner of the Best Foreign Film as being this Soviet movie, perhaps they were given the incorrect card, like when Mr. Beatty was in presenting the 2016 Best Picture prize.  The better picture was actually Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful  spectacle that preceded his  last masterpiece, 1985’s Ran.  It’s not rare for more than the card to be wrong when it comes to the Oscars, and this is one of those cases.

But that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking out this snapshot of Russian life for young women in the second half of the twentieth century.  According to a 1985 New York Times article, President Ronald Reagan watched this movie to get a feel for Soviet culture, as part of preparation for meeting Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time.  (Interesting side note:  The Academy Awards ceremony at which Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears won its award was delayed a day as a result of the assassination attempt on the President.)  Obviously, the movies aren’t always the best place to get the best depiction of reality.  But this film doesn’t seem like a piece of Soviet propaganda, but a real slice of life.  There are elements that make this feel like a proverbial “chick flick,” yet there is a serious tone and a decent storyline.

They had the right card
Basically, this film is the story of three working girls who become close friends while sharing an apartment in the late 1950’s.  There is Antonina, that friend with a boyfriend she is never apart from so that he is almost part of the group.  Antonia is nice enough, and so is her guy, but she is happy and stable and therefore uninteresting.  Then there is Lyudmila, a girl who loves to flirt and makes no bones about wanting to snag a guy who can provide her with a lavish lifestyle.  The main character is Katerina, who is smart and serious and who is willing to play along with Lyudmila’s wildness, but only to a point. 

Katerina has a wealthy uncle that asks her to house-sit his luxurious apartment.  Lyudmila convinces her to throw a dinner party (i.e., invite guys) at the place, pretending it is actually theirs.  Antonia, of course, has her dependable boyfriend, Nikolai, while Lyudmila invites a hockey player, Sergei, whom she ends up liking so much that she ends up abandoning her quest to find a more wealthy husband.  Sergei is shown frequently refusing to touch a drop of alcohol, since he is an athlete needing to stay in peak form.  In the first half of the film, he is repeatedly goaded into having “just one” with them, and repeatedly refuses, until he agrees to have just a taste (look out!).  Katerina takes a shine to a guy working in the new medium of television, Rudolf.  Rudolf is a smooth-talking charmer, and soon puts the moves on Katerina.  She’s not very receptive to his advancements, but next thing you know, baby makes three!  Or in this case, two, as Rudolf’s phone suddenly stops working every time Katerina tries to call him.

Flash-forward twenty years or so, to about the present day (i.e., the time this movie was made), and we take a look again at how the three friends are doing.  Katerina is now about done raising her late-teens daughter, Alexandra, and has chosen career over relationship.  Lyudmila and her hockey-player husband are Splitsville, after Sergei learned how to say “yes” to the occasional sip of an after dinner sherry.  Except now he guzzles Kamchatka right out of the bottle to wash down his morning porridge.  Antonina seems to be the only one living the life she wanted and expected, still married to her dopey but reliable and sweet Nikolai.  Despite the changes, the three women have remained friends.  The rest of the film, set in 1979, is somewhat more serious in tone than the first half, but the story is more engaging and in the end, satisfying.

Sergei and Lyudmila
I found Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears to be a fun film, and the character of Katerina was someone easy to root for.  She is smart and tough, and living in country that seems a couple of decades behind 1979 United States in terms of the role of women in society.  Except for Antonina, all the main characters were complex and likable, except of course rapey Rudolf.  And for a movie with a horrible title that was not, in my opinion, the best foreign film nominated that year, it’s worth a look.

Note:  This was one I was unable to find at the library, but found online at sovietmovies.com.  The site provides the movie with subtitles or dubbing. I couldn’t get the subtitled version to work, so I listened to American voice actors say the lines, which I found distracting.

The Title:  Москва слезам не верит.  In the sexist society of the Soviet Union, one male character “comforts” one of the females with this strange line, "Moscow does not believe in tears."  Sort of like, “Would you stop your crying already?”

The Culture:  It was interesting to see how even in the Soviet Union, there was the ambition to move up economically and that women struggled with how they were viewed as having less rights than men.  Some of this is struggle is shown as acceptable and natural, and some of the sexism is show as acceptable and natural.  An intriguing combination.

Agenda danger:  Going into this movie, I imagined the film would cast Communism in a decent light, the way the Russian pioneer director Eisenstein had done in his brilliant silent film Battleship Potemkin over a half a century earlier.  In fact, I found an air of truth to be found in this film, accepting of the Communist system, but not entirely comfortable with it.

"Ordinary People over Raging Bull?  Are you kidding me, Dutch?"
Best Picture that year:  Ordinary People.  Another second-best film to be nominated and win, beating Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Raging Bull.

Rating:  As a story, it holds your interest; as a character study, it gives you a lot to observe and think about.  But I do agree with whoever told President Reagan to watch it—the most interesting thing about it is to compare and contrast what we understand as our own culture with the Russian culture of the time.

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