Ul'iana Shilkina: The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 2006)
reviewed by Irina Makoveeva© 2007
The 2006 adaptation The Golden Calf revisits the second part of Il'ia Il'f and Evgenii Petrov’s pair of satirical works about the adventures of the most famous Soviet picaro, Ostap Bender—“the son of a Turkish citizen and a descendant of the Janissaries.” The first novel, Twelve Chairs (Dvenadtsat' stul'ev, 1928), focuses on the trickster’s hunt for a treasure hidden in one of the chairs; the second, The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 1931), on Bender’s pursuit of an underground Soviet millionaire with the goal of relieving him of one of his millions through blackmail. Treacherously murdered in his sleep by his partner just before the triumphant moment at the end of Twelve Chairs, Ostap is resurrected in The Golden Calf. Here, Bender finally succeeds in obtaining fantastic wealth, assisted by his comical crew consisting of two crooks, Shura Balaganov and Panikovskii, and a naïve automobilist, Adam Kozlevich. However, an exciting cross-country trip results in the realization that the money ingeniously expropriated from a secret millionaire, Koreiko, can neither provide Bender with a luxurious lifestyle in the USSR nor transport him to Rio de Janeiro, “a crystal dream of his childhood.”
The novels were tremendously popular with Soviet readers because of the personality of the protagonist, who in The Golden Calf confesses his disagreement with the Soviet regime and his boredom with building socialism; the witty and sharp narrative style; and the entertaining plots. Not only did the novels become popular favorites and a rich repository of widely used quotations, they also received critical recognition, despite their dubious content, and were repeatedly given screen interpretations. 
For its eight-installment television adaptation of The Golden Calf, the Central Partnership studio selected a young director, Ul'iana Shilkina, who made a successful debut in 2000 with her short feature film Nothing Scary (Nichego strashnogo). As if to counterbalance the preponderance of unknown actors and filmmakers involved in the project, the producers brought in a laurelled actor, Oleg Men'shikov, to portray the charming swindler with a cynical sense of humor. Curiously, a somewhat similar role in Mikhail Kozakov’s film The Pokrov Gates (Pokrovskie vorota, 1982), which he played while still a student at the Shchepkin Theater School in Moscow, earned him fame and popularity. Although reminiscent of his old burlesque performance, Men'shikov’s interpretation of the audacious, crafty, and generous con artist in the current television film also radiates an ironic wisdom—a quality appropriate for a novel that has been simultaneously defined as an official Soviet classic and perceived by readers as an anti-Soviet text. Nevertheless, even an actor of Men'shikov’s caliber could not prevent the overwhelmingly negative reception of The Golden Calf.
Primarily criticized as sluggish and tedious, Shilkina’s adaptation was unanimously branded as a failure. Yet such a reaction could have been predicted even before the project’s completion, owing to its literariness. It is worthwhile to examine the factors contributing to the film’s poor reception because they could reveal an essential “defect” of the television adaptation: its slavish fidelity to the “immortal” novel remarkable for its virtuosic language and its preoccupation with aural delights rather than visual ones. Unwilling to liberate their visual narrative from the shackles of the verbal text, the filmmakers structure their series around Il'f and Petrov’s authentic dialogue, which is relevant even in today’s Russia. The text seems doubly timely thanks to Men'shikov’s superb delivery of his lines, which combine the words of his literary prototype with those of the narrator.
The long-established tradition—especially in such a logocentric culture as Russia’s—of assuming that a cinematic adaptation of a canonized literary text must be inferior to the original may have provoked viewers’ initial distrust of a film based on a well-known work. Because the oeuvre of Il'f and Petrov is officially recognized and frequently reissued in print, Soviet and post-Soviet readers are intimately familiar with the original texts. However, the resistance by film critics and the mass audience to Shilkina’s adaptation, which almost literally reproduces the verbal source and contains episodes that were absent from previous adaptations, indicates that the failure of this series is unrelated to the novel’s exalted reputation. Rather, it results from Shilkina’s attempt to expand the mythic boundaries of The Golden Calf phenomenon, thus undermining the fixed cultural myth that transcends the eponymous literary text.
The most important change is that the 2006 series redefines Bender’s personality, a modification that goes along three axes: his relations with enemies, friends, and his beloved. As a generous and, ultimately, a wealthy individual, he is contrasted with the miserly Koreiko (Aleksei Devotchenko), whose fear of exposure prevents him from enjoying a lifestyle beyond that of an average Soviet clerk. Unlike her predecessors, Shilkina foregrounds this opposition between good and bad, “our” and “their” millionaires. Additionally, unlike Koreiko the hermit, Bender is surrounded by helpers. In an interview, Shilkina confessed that she sought to present Bender as a humane individual sincerely attached to the lowly people around him (Zolotukhin). In line with this interpretation, this Bender becomes a caring commander of his “brigade,” no longer snobbish and cruel. “An independent artist and cold philosopher,” Bender as portrayed by Men'shikov is far from being cold in his relationships. Moreover, his love for Zosia Sinitskaia (Ol'ga Kras'ko) not only transforms him into a romantic lover, but also leads him to lawful marriage. According to Shilkina’s closure, which incorporates the first and the second versions of Il'f and Petrov’s ending, Bender marries Zosia after his unsuccessful attempt to cross the border—an unexpected twist in the Ostap Bender myth.
At the same time, the creators of the 2006 adaptation faced a double challenge, competing with both the original and its earlier visual counterparts. While the 1993 adaptation Dreams of an Idiot (Mechty idiota) by Vasilii Pichul, with Sergei Krylov in the lead role, scarcely contributed to Il'f and Petrov’s legacy, the 1968 film The Golden Calf by Mikhail Shveitser, starring Sergei Iurskii, undeniably shaped the “collective” memory of the novel as well as the image of Ostap Bender, “the great schemer.” Whereas Shveitser’s film consolidated the 1950s canonization of Il'f and Petrov’s novels as classics of Soviet satire and as symbols of pre-Stalinist artistic freedom, Pichul’s irreverent remake “spat in the idol’s face” (Dobrotvorskii 235) and attacked the mythic reputation of a canonized text, thus commenting on bygone eras rather than interpreting a literary source.
Shilkina’s adaptation brings the cinema closer to the literary source and rectifies the imbalance of Pichul’s sinister revision of The Golden Calf myth by restoring the picaresque humor and pathos of the original. The series format permits her to recreate a broad social landscape depicting Soviet life in the late 1920s as portrayed in the novel. She incorporates comic episodes showing Soviet citizens in their private space (that is, the life of habitants of the communal house, Rook’s Row), as well as in their public sphere (that is, the routine of Soviet clerks and bureaucrats, Herculeans). The absence of time constraints allows the director to introduce the stories of an accountant, Berlaga, who finds temporary shelter in an asylum, and of Vasisualii Lokhankin, deserted by his wife. To these are added episodes ridiculing Feofan Mukhin, an industrious painter working with wheat, corn, and oats instead of the outdated oil and brush, and attesting to Bender’s artistic talent as a scriptwriter getting paid for his scenario, The Neck, at the Chernomorsk cinema factory. To diversify her adaptation graphically, Shilkina resorts to animation in the flashbacks depicting the collapse of Kozlevich’s automobile business and the deplorable end of a French teacher, Ernestine Pointcaré, because of her abstinence. Furthermore, she employs the pseudo-documentary form in representing Balaganov’s version of the rebellion on the battleship Ochakov under the leadership of Lieutenant Schmidt.
What is important is that all additions included in the script by Il'ia Avramenko are word-oriented: the characters’ speech determines the episodes’ significance for the film. The camera work by Viktor Novozhilov incessantly privileges speaking characters—their positions govern the shot construction—depriving “silent” spots of their relevance, almost excluding them from the filmic narrative, and flattening the depth of shots. The lack of mobile framing and the penchant for long and medium shots, even in shot/reverse-shot sequences, prevent the actors from being framed tightly and slow down the flow of images, thus attenuating the shots’ impact on viewers. Neither the muted color palette, nor the editing help to create a rhythmic pulsation on the screen. As a result, the “sedating” visual imagery yields to Il'f and Petrov’s “live” discourse, to viewers’ and critics’ dissatisfaction. It seems that it is precisely the filmmakers’ neglect of cinematic devices that triggered the critiques of the 2006 adaptation. The simultaneous broadcast of Shilkina’s film with Gleb Panfilov’s television adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle (V kruge pervom) emphasized the shortcomings of The Golden Calf, a cinematically less engaging film.
University of Pittsburgh
The Golden Calf, Russia, 2006
Color, 8 episodes, 45 minutes each
Director: Ul'iana Shilkina
Scriptwriter: Il'ia Avramenko
Cinematography: Viktor Novozhilov
Art Director: Sergei Agin
Music: Aleksei Papernyi
Cast: Oleg Men'shikov, Nikita Tatarenkov, Aleksei Devotchenko, Leonid Okunev, Dmitrii Nazarov, Mikhail Efremov, Inga Oboldina, Ol'ga Kras'ko, Mikhail Svetin, Igor' Dmitriev, Evgenii Stychkin, Karen Badalov, Aleksandr Semchev, Alena Babenko, Kakhi Kavsadze.
Producer: Ruben Dishdishdian
Production: Park Prodakshn
Ul'iana Shilkina: The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 2006)
reviewed by Irina Makoveeva© 2007