Valerii Ogorodnikov: Fishing Season (Putina, 2007)
reviewed by Eva Binder© 2008
On 2 July 2006, at the age of fifty-four, Russian film director Valerii Ogorodnikov passed away. His latest film, Fishing Season , had already been shot at the time of his unexpected death and a first version of footage had been assembled. However, it would still take a year before the film was finally completed. It premiered at the 29 th Moscow International Film Festival in 2007.  In spite of the tragic circumstances that prevented the director from concluding his film, Fishing Season can be regarded as a worthy finish of his artistic oeuvres , which had been developing for over twenty years. Ogorodnikov celebrated his first national as well as international success with the film The Burglar (Vzlomshchik, 1987), in which he made the St. Petersburg rock scene during perestroika accessible to a larger audience. And yet, with an additional five feature film credits until his premature death, Ogorodnikov's cinematic work is, quantitatively speaking, relatively modest.
The action of Fishing Season takes place on Zalita, one of the three islands in Lake Pskov, which lies in the Russian far west, at the border with Estonia and quite near the ancient Russian town of Pskov. The timeframe is the two short days that cover the preparations for a wedding and the marriage celebration itself. The focus is a melodramatic love triangle involving the young, very pregnant Masha (starring the budding actress Anna Il'iushchenko), who is wooed by two men: the reserved Ivan (Evgenii Titov), who is roughly Masha's age and is her bridegroom, and the considerably older, daring, and passionate Petr (Petr Semak), from whom she awaits a child. At the time of the planned wedding, Petr is serving a jail sentence for poaching. On the day prior to the wedding, however, this widower and father of a minor son appears unexpectedly in the village to declare his love to Masha. The woman vacillates between the two men, remaining at first at Ivan's side. Yet, just before entering the church doors, she makes a dramatic decision against Ivan, who dearly adores her, and for the father of her child-to-be, to whom she feels bound in love and passion.
In an interview in Moskovskii Komsomolets shortly before his death, Ogorodnikov professed his support for a cinema that is accessible to a broad public and that offers philosophic depth (Chernykh). Such an approach, which the director had pursued at least since his film The Barrack (Barak, 1999), can be illustrated in Fishing Season by the way he reduced the number of characters in his story to very few protagonists, how he concentrated the plot on the play of passions between man and woman, and on his tragicomic heightening of feelings. As a link between the tragic and the comic, between deathly passions and their taming, Ogorodnikov integrates the feast into the plot. The elements assigned to it as specific spaces are the veranda of a wooden house, which has become a converted kitchen, where—to the sound of classical music—fish are cut up, onions are chopped, and dough is kneaded; the small stage in front of the house supporting the wedding orchestra; and, the outdoor banquet table. What the feast in Fishing Season mostly signifies is the lifting of everyday worries and troubles, of the here and now.
Accordingly, there are two differing means of representation in the film: the theatrical mise-en-scène and the near documentary portrayal of a social environment. In a most articulate way, the theatrical element is brought to bear by the role of the chef, who also functions as the master of ceremonies. Ogorodnikov offered this part to a well-known St. Petersburg theater actor, Sergei Byzgu, who has been very successful in comic and satirical roles.
The baroque opulence of the dishes and the cheerful exuberance of the brass band stand in sharp contrast to the images of everyday life on the island, which the camera depicts in authentic-like shots and with numerous details. These include long shots of the entire village and of its simple and poorly dressed residents, as well as frequent views into private living spaces or unembellished images of a barren landscape beneath an overcast sky. Especially impressive in their authenticity are the village inhabitants, who appear not only as extras, but who are also actively integrated into the shaping and development of the dialogues.
Similar to his previous two films, The Barrack and Red Sky, Black Snow (Krasnoe nebo, chernyi sneg, 2004), which both take place around Cheliabinsk, Ogorodnikov chose for this film a place far away from the economically booming urban centers of new Russia. Transmitted together with the location is a sense of time, contrasting diametrically with the rushed tempo of the contemporary media world. The temporal life rhythm, as presented in the film, is determined, on the one hand, by Nature and natural necessities and, on the other, by the residential community that preserves a traditional way of living and thinking. The rhythm as conditioned by Nature is repeated in the montage of water, of the departing fishing boat, and of the earthy and dusty roads and muddy paths. The motif of the pregnant woman, who at the end of the film is overcome by labor pains, also alludes indirectly to Nature and its power over humankind. Birth and death, (natural) fatherhood, and family in the sense of a pre-determined fate are also central themes in the characters' dialogues. The dead are present in the conversations, whether it is Petr's dead wife, his father who has drowned in the lake, or Masha's mother who has passed away.
The social structures of the village community appear in Ogorodnikov's depiction as unalterable as the laws of Nature. It is a profoundly patriarchal community that confronts the film audience. The work of the men—fishing—ensures not only the families' livelihoods, but also allocates men the role of decision-makers. Moreover, the narrative presents a community of male solidarity, which regulates and defuses personal rivalries. Thus, Petr saves his rival Ivan from drowning, and both join other men casually having a drink together. Indeed, the village community of solidarity not only restrains individual behavior but also undermines the government and its laws. That is, the civil servant assigned to deliver the escaped Petr back to the authorities participates himself at the very same drinking session and grants Petr a three-day grace-period.
A further characteristic of this presented village community is its population's religious rootedness. The female protagonist participates intensely and reverently in church rituals. Tears form in her eyes during her attendance at mass, and only as she arrives at the church entrance does she realize that she is being led to the altar by the wrong man. And although the view of the scene is blocked by the black screen of opening credits, the audience can hear the ringing of church bells along with the murmuring of water. Furthermore, fish and apples, which are central images, can also be seen as religious motifs. Still another example in this respect is the setting itself. The Orthodox priest Nikolai Gur'ianov, about whom many legends of miraculous rescues and healings have grown, spent over forty years on this island, passing away there in 2002 at the age of 93. The island is, above all, a place of pilgrimage to the grave of this venerated servant of God. The legendary priest is also indirectly present in the film: at one point, the camera moves briefly over his portrait, hanging on a wall covered with other pictures.
Ogorodnikov's conceptual approach and his cinematic methods are not new. Indeed, they reflect the auteur cinema tradition, in which the director intended to position himself. Essential points of reference appear to be the Soviet auteur cinema of the 1960s, as well as the oeuvre of film director Emil Kusturica, who has combined the fantastic with the documentary in a groundbreaking way. The carnivalesque banquet in Fishing Season, the highly pregnant bride, the black-and-white spotted cat, or the bride's veil floating in the wind are clearly elements that Ogorodnikov borrows from Kusturica, and thus they are easy to criticize. There are other image motifs that reflect Soviet auteur cinema and especially Tarkovskii's poetic cinematic language, such as the white horse, the apples, or the water. At the same time, there are clearly recognizable parallels of narrative as well as cinematic means between Fishing Season and Andrei Konchalovskii's film The Story of Asia Kliachina, Who Loved but Did Not Marry (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, kotoraia liubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh, 1966; released 1986). Konchalovskii's tale was also based on a love triangle (a woman wooed by two men) and there, too, the woman was pregnant. Similar to Ogorodnikov in Fishing Season, Konchalovskii filled in only the main protagonists' parts with professional actors; the collective-farm workers and village inhabitants played the other roles in order to provide more authenticity to the rural milieu. Like Fishing Season, The Story of Asia Kliachina conveys a mythic sense of time through the use of the subjects, birth, death, and love. Yet, whereas Konchalovskii's 1960s film was directed against the current conventions of cinematic representation and thought, Ogorodnikov takes a conservative approach and tends to idealize village life as natural and God-given. Specifically, it is a life based on patriarchal structures, religious belief, and an aggressive isolation from influences that intrude into this closed world from the outside. A short comparison between the two female protagonists clarifies this point: Konchalovskii's Asia makes her decision independently and decides against both men; Ogorodnikov's Masha chooses against the village community's expectation, but that she will submit to a man is never put into question.
Ogorodnikov is connected with contemporary Russian cinema primarily through the motif of the island, which connotes separation, seclusion, and preservation. Comparative conceptions regarding Russian culture or Russia as an isolated entity can be found in such formally diverse and yet, as far as ideas are concerned, such related films as Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) or Pavel Lungin's The Island (Ostrov, 2006). The fact that in Ogorodnikov's Fishing Season the camera rises above the island in the closing shot to the sounds of the screams of the newborn child seems to suggest an interpretation of the island as a symbol for today's Russia. In any event, the rapt, anarchistic life that Ogorodnikov conducts before our eyes and presents in a rousing narrative about love and passion merits attention—independently of the question whether the viewer shares the spiritual attitude projected into this life, or not.
Translated by Laurie Cohen
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1] Those responsible for completing the film presented it to the Moscow International Film Festival: namely, the producers Vladilen Arsen'ev (NTV-Kino) and Vladimir Roslow (Darfil'm), co-screenwriter Mikhail Konoval'chuk, and actresses Era Ziganshina and Anna Il'iushchenko (see Moscow International Film Festival).
Chernykh, Natal'ia. “Umer Valerii Ogorodnikov.” Moskovskii Komsomolets (4 July 2007).
Moscow International Film Festival. “Den' chetvertyi” (25 June 2007).
Fishing Season, Russia, 2007
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Valerii Ogorodnikov
Scriptwriter: Valerii Ogorodnikov, Mikhail Konoval'chuk
Cinematography: Valerii Martynov
Art Director: Dmitrii Pakhomov
Music: Vladimir Martynov
Cast: Anna Il'iushchenko, Evgenii Titov, Petr Semak, Nina Semenova, Sergei Byzgu
Producers: Valerii Ogorodnikov, Vladilen Arsen'ev, Vladimir Roslow
Production: Dar-Film, with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, and the Producer Center “President Film”
Valerii Ogorodnikov: Fishing Season (Putina, 2007)
reviewed by Eva Binder© 2008