Cinematryoshka: Kira Muratova's feminine, not feminist, movies

Kira Muratova is one of the most original women filmmakers of the Soviet and post-Soviet cinema.

Kira Muratova's debut as a filmmaker took place in 1962 with "By the Step Ravine" movie

She was born 80 years ago, on November 5, 1934, in the city of Soroca in present-day Moldova. Young Kira Muratova studied in Moscow, but most of her later life was spent working in Odessa. Her debut as a filmmaker took place in 1962 with "By the Step Ravine" movie.

In her early films Muratova’s most impressive characters are female, all of them completely unadorned: a party worker, a divorced mother, an unmarried young lady...  Unlike Vladimir Menshov in his Oscar-winning movie “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” Kira Muratova makes no attempt to combine the three strands into one and create a kind of Soviet “wonder woman”. Perhaps it is because of this reluctance to idealize her Soviet characters that Muratova’s movies were not shown for a long time.

“Brief Encounters” in 1967 was her third film. Provincial girl Nadia meets geologist Maxim, played by the famous Russian poet and singer Vladimir Vysotsky. She works in a tea-house, while he has an exciting job, a “romantic” disposition, and a guitar. The girl naturally falls in love. When the time comes for him to leave, he reassures her and seemingly invites her to join him. She takes it all to heart and goes with him on his expedition, not knowing that Maxim already has a wife — Valentina (played by the director herself). Valentina works for a regional committee, signs papers, gives lectures, and sees her husband only in snatches in between expeditions. They are forever breaking up and getting back together. Each time Valentina forgives him. Nadia appears in their home in the guise of a housemaid from the local village. She lays the table — then leaves. 

Muratova does not like it when people label her films as feminist, and for a while she did not even believethat such a genre existed. “I was puzzled to begin with. I thought: what nonsense, what does it mean ‘female' director’? A person either has talent or doesn't. That's the skeptical attitude I took with me to Créteil in France, where I was surprised to see that female cinema actually exists. It’s terribly cynical and violent. Films by embittered slaves made good who spit in the face of everything stored up and seething inside them. I was amazed. And have since come to recognize the existence of tigers, jellyfish, spiders — and women’s cinema.”

Nevertheless, her movies do have a certain “feminine” outlook, a compassionate desire to understand others. They are not family dramas or production-line soap operas. In her films life is far more complicated, yet at the same time simpler than it seems. Such is her paradox. 

Her 1989 film “The Asthenic Syndrome” won an award at the Berlin Film Festival, although few understood it back home in the Soviet Union. It was described as a “diagnosis of Soviet Man,” yet there was no trace of politics. The heroine of the first part is a female doctor who, distraught at the death of her husband, wanders the streets like a lunatic. The hero of the second part is a teacher who has lost all interest in life. The doctor and the teacher represent civilization and basic social institutions, yet both are tired and broken. At the end of the film, to the sound of his wailing female companion, the hero loses consciousness and is carried away by a subway train into the unknown. The mix of the surreal with the mundane is another paradox. Once again Muratova distanced herself from descriptions of the film as a social, time-bound critique of the collapsing Soviet Union.

The scenes of the film do not appear to be logically ordered, and the characters speak at random. The strange effect is achieved by cutting and editing: “I love montage, it’s my favorite pastime. I couldn’t live without the cutting room,” Muratova said.  

“The Tuner,” filmed in 2004 together with screenwriter and muse Renata Litvinova, is perhaps the most straightforward film narrative. The Hollywood-esque plot revolves around a criminal scam: two young lovers devise an elegant scheme to swindle an old lady, earning the modest sum of$8000 for their efforts. Despite the young duo’s appeal, the main character in the film is their victim, the moralizing 70-year-old lady. 

Kira Muratova does not create historical epics, reflect on the fate of Russia, force-feed spirituality - be it Orthodox Christian or existential, or drag traumatized veterans of the Chechen war onto the screen. In short, she ignores the template of contemporary Russian cinema. Ignores and denies everything, but skilfully reflects Russian reality in her movies. Such is her paradox.

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