Arvo Iho: Gooseberries (Kruzhovnik, 2007)

reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2008

Can You Go Home Again? Arvo Iho's Olympic Dreams and Olympian Desires

Estonian director Arvo Iho gives audiences a film that announces itself with a flourish: trumpeters from the Opening Ceremonies of the Moscow Summer Olympics (19 July-3 August 1980) herald a montage of period footage accompanied by the rousing oldie “The Stadium of My Dreams.” [1] This brief nostalgic return to the pageantry and puffery of the 23rd Games serves as counterpoint for Iho's recreation of a lesser-known Olympic event: the 101-K chase. Gooseberries dramatizes the Moscow roundup of “anti-social elements” who were driven 101 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) outside the city limits and detained for the duration of the Olympiad. This social prophylaxis ostensibly concluded before the games began, but Gooseberries posits an unfulfilled quota that necessitates follow-up efforts that occur on 3 August, the day of the Closing Ceremonies.

As the arm of the law knocks on an interior door of a communal apartment, the hand on the glass is framed by surrealist art. For older generations this shot alone establishes the resident as an undesirable, an impression that only grows as two militiamen and a neighbor complainant enter the decidedly other-minded space of non-conformist artist Boris (a strong performance by Dmitrii Pevtsov). The search and arrest that follow seem a conscious, if bizarre, reworking of the Soviet anecdote:

Q. Why do KGB officers walk around in groups of three?

A. One knows how to write, the other knows how to read, and the third likes to hang out with intellectuals.

The diminutive Lieutenant (Timofei Tribuntsev) reads out the charges calmly and clearly, treating the artist politely, even respectfully. His crude, boorish underling (Iurii Gumirov), more attracted to drawings of nudes that allow him to show off his ability to count, ultimately hopes to appropriate some of the artist's “pornographics” (albeit for prurient interests). The artist, in turn, remains unflappable and self-assured throughout the ordeal, as comfortable in his uniform of dissent (jean shirt over Levis, crowned with a tubeteika skullcap) as the officers are in theirs. As we will later learn, this graduate of the Surikov Art Institute taught in the Academy of Arts in the early 1970s. His fortunes turned at the 1974 bulldozer exhibition, the catalyst for his now advanced case of disdain for the Soviet state.

Events in Moscow (which often rely on rather broad humor) alternate with beautifully shot scenes of the countryside, which introduce us to lustrous images of rural beauty: first, ripe dewy gooseberries gleaming in the sun; next, the 26-year-old Anna (Ul'iana Lapteva), the second wife of retired general Nikolai (Sergei Garmash), now head of a nuclear defense plant. Anna's ease and delight in this natural setting do not extend to her marriage of convenience: she regularly submits to the dicta of her older, powerful stickler of a husband, an outsider she wed to provide for her son from her first marriage. Anna's vitality, physicality, and beauty stand in sharp contrast to her husband's detachment and patronizing obstinacy. The film's title neatly encapsulates their emotional and ideational distance: Nikolai proclaims that the word for gooseberry is kryzhovnik (the dictionary form), while his wife insists upon the correctness of the provincial kruzhovnik, providing a personal etymology that stresses a unified connection to other natural phenomena (round like the sun). Anna's variant serves as an apt title for a film that examines cultural differences both geographic and ideological.

These two plot lines intersect when Boris manages to escape from the vehicle transporting him and ten other outcasts (4 working girls, 2 vagrants, 2 drunks, one ridiculously ineffectual dissident, and one worker). Boris swims across a river and emerges at Nikolai's dacha, where he takes shelter in a shed. While Nikolai attends the Closing Ceremonies in Moscow, Anna and Boris meet and the brief encounter of two people from different worlds motivates this retro melodrama, the genre of choice for screenwriter Marina Mareeva, whose credits include Totalitarian Romance (Totalitarnyi roman; dir. Viacheslav Sorokin, 1998) and Envy of the Gods (Zavist' bogov; dir.Vladimir Men'shov, 2000).

Care has been taken to dress the screen with period costumes and realia. Olympic trappings, naturally, abound, along with long-wave radios and other appropriate paraphernalia. Music of the day is often used to ironic effect: as the militia picks up other social parasites, we hear the lyrics “Don't be sad/All of life awaits you/Just you wait and see.” The songs that provide the most serious social commentary belong, not surprisingly, to Vladimir Vysotskii, who died unexpectedly during the first week of the Olympics. In this context, the 3 August date takes on another dimension: nine days after the bard's death it also marks the date when according to Orthodox belief the soul departs the body. The film's commemoration of Vysotskii's untimely demise begins aboard the militia's transport bus. As the Vysotskii acolyte working man (a portrait of the bard decorates his guitar) plays “My Gypsy Song” (Moia tsyganskaia), everyone joins in on the refrain. Vysotskii's appeal to all levels of society in the minibus (each has his or her own “Volodia”) serves to demonstrate the universality of his art and the important role the prophet-artist plays in a repressive society.

A careful viewer will note that a sketch of Vysotskii forms part of a triptych that hangs above Boris' bed. The other two faces (one a photograph, the other a self-portrait) belong to another groundbreaker, the lesser-known founding father of Moscow independent art, Ulo Ilmar Sooster (1924-1970). Accepted into the Tartu State Art Institute in 1945, Ulo and four other classmates were arrested in 1949, charged with attempted highjack, and sentenced to ten years under Article 58. In the Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp in Kazakhstan, the young man would learn some Russian and meet his future wife Lidiia. [2] After Sooster's release and rehabilitation in 1957, the couple settled in Moscow where the artist was to paint his first surrealist canvases. In 1960 Ulo joined forces with Il'ia Kabakov and the two secured a basement studio.[3] Throughout the decade Sooster hosted “Tuesdays” at his home, gatherings that brought non-figurative artists together and also introduced foreign journalists to the unofficial art scene. [4] Along with Ernst Neizvestnyi, Sooster incurred Khrushchev's wrath at the 1962 Manezh exhibit. When the artist explained that his painting was a lunar landscape, Khrushchev screamed that he would send the artist not to the moon, but to Kolyma; Sooster calmly replied that he had already been there.[5]

By the late 1960s Sooster and Kabakov became part of the Sretenskii Boulevard Group, the precursor to the Moscow conceptualist movement in the 1970s. Sooster, who died in 1970, would not live to see it, but his art continued to inspire other artists.[6] In Gooseberries the colorful, abstract paintings and fanciful nudes and other sketches attributed to Boris belong to Sooster, as does the uncompromising spirit we see in Boris. The profound influence that Sooster exerted on the development of modern art in both Moscow and his native Estonia, speaks to the broad humanitarian theme of the interconnectedness of humankind in Iho's film.

This feeling of connection to nature and to others returns to Boris after he sheds his Western attire while crossing the river. The swim and its effect, the time spent at the dacha, not to mention the ripe gooseberries growing on the property, emphasize the film's Chekhovian motifs. It is not surprising that Iho, who graduated from the Cinematography Department of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1976, has retained a cameraman's eye for the sensuous beauty of nature.[7] Iho speaks fondly of his internship with Andrei Tarkovskii, and he pays homage to the master in the scenes of Anna and Boris in the woods. The repeated call of the cuckoo adds a sense of promise and possibility to these scenes of growing mutual attraction.[8]

The director's ability to extract strong performances from this cast (both the principals and such supporting actors as Vasilii Prokop'ev [Anna's son] and Pavel Sborshchikov [her first husband]) have reminded some viewers of his earlier films. In one sense a return to the concerns of his 1983 “problem film” Well, Come on, Smile (Naerata ometi; Russian title Igry dlia detei shkol'nogo vozrasta), a coming-of-age tale set amidst the gritty reality of life in a Soviet orphanage, Gooseberries lacks the immediacy and the notes of optimism of the earlier film. In a review for TimeOut Moscow , Masha Ivanova notes Lapteva's striking resemblance to actress Margarita Terekhova, star of Iho's acclaimed Only for Crazies ( Ainult hulludele ehk halastajaõde; Russian title Tol'ko dlia sumashedshikh, 1990). [9] Both films explore the theme of adultery and integrate comedic elements into the (melo)drama; both female leads play women who pay dearly for their involvement with “the other man.” While Only for Crazies tackled contemporary social problems with panache, earning two Nika nominations in 1991, the Grand Prize at the 1992 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, and a slew of national and international awards for Terekhova, the social commentary in Iho's latest picture harkens back to an earlier era. As the film draws to an end and Vysotskii sings “My Gypsy Song” in its entirety, its closing line—“Everything's not as it should be”—hardly seems a revelation. [10]

Yet the film's call to recognize the value in every one of us seems as relevant today as it was in the 1980s or 1890s, when Chekhov wrote the original “Gooseberries.” Towards the end of the film Boris finds a copy of the story and reads selections aloud to Anna:

“Look at this life: the impudence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak; all around us is poverty, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lies… But we do not see nor hear those that suffer, and all that is terrible in this life occurs somewhere behind the scenes… because the unhappy carry their burden silently and without this silence happiness would be impossible. It's general hypnosis.”

The inequity between the haves and the rest is not the only contemporary issue the director addresses. Iho's creation of a golden, gleaming Moscow evokes Luzhkov's urban renovations as well as Olympic preparations. The most controversial parallel between then and now may be Iho's charge that censorship is alive and well in Russia today. In an interview on Estonian television, Iho claimed that some scenes and Vysotskii songs were deemed unacceptable and removed by Russian censors before the film was screened. Since Iho has not yet shown his director's copy, we are left to wonder what precisely was excised and why. [11] Russian reaction in the press was swift and indignant, disparaging the accusation and reminding readers that the film was made with Russian financial support. [12] Even prior to that, the film received a rather cool reception, nominated for the Worst Picture Award at the “Window to Europe” Festival where it premiered. [13]

A s a cautionary tale for the upcoming Games of the XXIX Olympiad, the director's fear of similar social cleansing in China has proved prescient. But the implications also resonate closer to home: one need only to recall the Office of Migrant Work's campaign to resolve Moscow's guest worker problem through the eviction or removal of all illegal immigrants by 1 September 2007, the day Moscow celebrated its 860th anniversary. Time alone will tell whether history will repeat itself once again at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

Arlene Forman
Oberlin College

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1] Aleksandra Pakhmutova composed the song ( Stadion moei mechty ) for the 1979 documentary Ballad of Sport and Muslim Magomedov's recording headed the soundtrack album released the following year. It was featured at the XXIII Olympic Games during the Parade of Athletes. The first stanza proclaims: “Greetings to you, best in the world/The stadium of my dreams/Obsession is the path to victory/Without beauty there is no sport/The thirst for happiness, the thirst for the record/And the wonderful moment of competition/Masters of big-time sports/Teach gallantry to others.”

2] Arrested in 1943 and again in 1950, Lidiia recalls the secret sketches of camp life that Ulo sent her (those remaining are on permanent exhibit in the Moscow office of the human rights organization Memorial). Were it not for her family's apartment on Krasin Street, one wonders whether Sooster would have moved to Moscow. For further reflections see Lidiia Sooster's “Khudozhnik Iulo Sooster”.

3] Kabakov considers Sooster a mentor and his Ilya Kabakov on Ulo Sooster's Paintings: Subjective Notes is still considered the best analysis of Sooster's oeuvre to date. Written in the 1980s, though not published until 1996, his study focuses on Sooster's influence upon conceptualist art. The more recent Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression under the Soviets, 1945-1991, approaches the artist's work in the context of his times and past influences. Edited by A. Rosenfeld and N.T. Dodge, this 2002 volume adds more details to the artist's biography along with new illustrations and photos (see Eha Kommisarov's chapter on art in Tartu, 147-150).

4] In Ilya Kabakov: A Short Critical Biography, Rod Mengan stresses the crucial role of Italian writer Antonelli Trombadore, the organizer of a mid-1960s modernist exhibit featuring their works (3). Sooster's work figured in other foreign exhibits in Czechoslovakia and in Cologne. In 1967 his work was also exhibited in Estonia at the first Tallinn Jazz Festival.

5] Kommissarov notes that Sooster took the threat literally and prepared for a second term, which fortunately did not occur.

6] One interesting example is Landscape with Juniper (Peisazh s mozhzhevel'nikom; dir. Andrei Khrzhanovskii and Valerii Ugarov, 1987). The thirty-minute film depicts Sooster's life and art through a combination of animation and documentary footage.

7] Iho has more than a dozen credits as a cinematographer, including two of the films he directed: Well, Come on, Smile and Vernanda (1988).

8] Other images suggestive of Tarkovskii will appear later in the film. The bird call also brings to mind Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Cuckoo (Kukushka, 2002), where male enmity and competition for one woman is resolved more amicably and whimsically.

9] “Kruzhovnik”; In the film Anna also compares herself to another celluloid star, Natal'ia Gundareva, who played the wife in the love triangle created by Georgii Daneliia for Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979).

10] Vysotskii sang this very song onscreen forty years earlier in Kira Muratova's Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi, 1967)—yet another love triangle. There, the telling refrain was omitted, though the cut in and of itself pointed to the restrictions of the regime.

11] The other Vysotskii song that remained, the ballad “Lyrical” (Liricheskaia), is used to illustrate Boris's longing for Anna and his knowledge of the impossibility of their situation.

12] “Estonskii rezhisser: V Rossii est' politicheskaia tsenzura”.

13] In his 15 August 2007 review for Vedemosti, Dmitrii Savel'ev finds no redeeming value in the film. Reviewers in Estonia and Kazakhstan have struck more positive notes.

Gooseberries, Russia, 2007
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Arvo Iho
Screenplay: Marina Mareeva
Cinematography: Anatolii Susekov
Cast: Dmitrii Pevtsov, Ul'iana Lapteva, Sergei Garmash, Vasilii Prokop'ev, Pavel Sborshchikov, Timofei Tribuntsev
Producer: Igor' Tolstunov, Sergei Kozlov
Production: Protel Film Company, with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema


Arvo Iho: Gooseberries (Kruzhovnik, 2007)

reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08