Issue 24 (2009)

Natal’ia Bondarchuk: The One Love of My Soul (Odna liubov’ dushi moei, 2007)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2009

liubovNatal’ia Bondarchuk chose an unusual viewpoint to tell the story of Pushkin’s life in 1820-1825, namely, that of Maria Nikolaevna Volkonskaia, née Raevskaia, the famous Decembrist’s wife who followed her husband into exile and spent 30 years in Siberia. As a young actress, Bondarchuk had portrayed Volkonskaia in Vladimir Motyl’’s remarkable Star of Captivating Happiness (Zvezda plenitel’nogo schast’ia, 1975), delivering one of the finest performances of her career. However, making the tragic princess the main focus of this made-for-TV Pushkin biopic—Volkonskaia, surrounded by Decembrists and family members in the late 1830s and early 1840s in Siberia recalls the happy times with “our Aleksandr” in the Caucasus and the Crimea—generates serious factual and conceptual distortions. For one, to assume that Maria Volkonskaia was really the “one love of Pushkin’s soul” is not just a forgivable stretch—it is a hypothesis impossible to prove. Indeed, the Platonic feeling that supposedly lasted a lifetime yet somehow did not find any direct expression in either Pushkin’s works or Volkonskaia’s memoirs, is too weak a hypothesis to fill a 10-hour series with dramatic flair and emotional intensity. As a result, the characters’ interaction is limited to shy or fiery gazes and flirtatious conversations in their youth and melancholic thoughts in later years. To further assume that Maria Volkonskaia was the main prototype of Onegin’s Tat’iana requires some suspension of disbelief as well: although her marriage to an older general would fit the analogy (Sergei Volkonskii was seventeen years older than Maria Raevskaia), he was only 37 at the time of their wedding—not an old man by any standards. Pushkin was a loyal friend to the Raevskii and Volkonskii families, but whatever may have been going on beyond that is highly debatable. Apart from historical and psychological inconsistencies, it is hard to overlook the fact that Natal’ia Bondarchuk, no longer the sensual Hari from Tarkovskii’s Solaris, was in her mid-fifties at the time of shooting and, alas, beyond a woman in her mid-thirties, while the beautiful Sof’ia Torosian as the young Maria is indeed far too beautiful—and too bland for Raevskaia who has been described as unsightly yet charmingly smart.

Bondarchuk must have foreseen such criticism, yet she obviously wanted to present her version of events, taking artistic license when lacking the documents to support her interpretation. Pushkin specialists may cringe, but Bondarchuk, no doubt, had a different target audience in mind. From the first introductory shot, featuring a glowing yellow leaf slowly sailing onto a historical street, and the inscription “Legends of the Golden Age” promising more such stories in the future, it becomes clear that the author/director intended to recreate an epoch of romantic bliss, of imperial and intellectual splendor, but also an idyll that has been cherished by generations of dedicated teachers of Russian literature. Although Bondarchuk does not completely ignore the illiberal political conditions, shameless oppression, and injustice of that epoch, her film depicts Pushkin in charming interiors, always surrounded by loyal friendship, protective families, and picturesque nature. No drinking binges, no brothels, no gambling away the earnings of a year in one night, no indifferent parents, greedy relatives, two-faced informers or foolish supervisors—Bondarchuk’s image of Pushkin and his age is pristine. Even the Siberian exile resembles a picture-book winter tale. Of course, there is an implied polemics in this positively pure image, juxtaposing it to contemporary misery and to negative views of the past, but idylls do not exciting stories make.

To be sure, Bondarchuk gathered a star-studded cast, and although many actors and actresses listed prominently in the lengthy opening and closing credits appear only in one of the ten parts, the crème de la crème of Russian cinema lends her film some undeniable grandeur. Vasilii Lanovoi’s cameo as Nikolai Karamzin is superb, as is Boris Khimichev’s performance as General Nikolai Raevskii. The mere presence of Stanislav Liubshin as the silver-haired, exhausted Prince Sergei Volkonskii visibly improves a number of episodes, awkwardly though they may be arranged, as does Aleksandr Mikhailov’s portrayal of the tempestuous Mikhail Lunin. The idea that a visit to Kiev initiated Pushkin’s spiritual awakening—yet another risky hypothesis—provides an opportunity to feature Bogdan Stupka who appears in the young poet’s imagination as philosopher Hryhori Skovoroda. However, the film’s two fortune tellers—Marianna Vertinskaia as Frau Kirchhof in St. Petersburg who predicts Pushkin’s death in a duel and Natal’ia Arinbasarova’s as a Buryat shaman—trivialize the plot, no matter how nice an encounter with these accomplished actresses may seem, and repeating their scenes in several parts gives them an undue conceptual significance.

A major weakness of the film is its lack of narrative cohesion, although this is more pronounced in some parts than in others (part 4, 7, and 8 come across better organized and make more sense than part 2 or 5). Following the example of recent television biopics, Natal’ia Bondarchuk decided to introduce a contemporary narrator (Vladimir Iumatov, who also plays Vasilii Zhukovskii). Extremely talkative, he stands next to the historical sets, explaining the connections between characters and their later lives, although all too often the information he provides amasses unimportant details. Moreover, the actor’s overly casual, almost blurred articulation makes him unconvincing as an intellectual representative and cultural mediator. 

A pleasant and sometimes hauntingly beautiful score, composed by Ivan Burliaev (Natal’ia Bondarchuk’s son from her marriage to Nikolai Burliaev), is omnipresent; indeed, there is hardly a moment without his tunes. The four main musical themes convey a variety of moods, from cheerful and agitated to pensive and melancholic, but the orchestration resembles the “easy listening” category à la Rondo Veneziano, which is in accordance with Bondarchuk’s overall idyllic approach but sometimes simply inappropriate and embarrassing, given the tragic circumstances of both Pushkin’s and Volkonskaia’s lives.

liubovBondarchuk has incorporated scenes from her controversial biopic Pushkin. The Last Duel (Pushkin. Posledniaia duel’, 2006) into the miniseries. Recycling older footage apparently allowed for a leaner budget, but also for the inclusion of Sergei Bezrukov as the superstar leading the credits. However, although Bezrukov did play the title role in Bondarchuk’s earlier feature film, he was not involved in the television production. The decision to still include Bezrukov’s name results in altogether three actors portraying the poet: Bezrukov in a few snippets such as Pushkin’s agony after the duel with d’Anthès, Igor’ Dnestrianskii in the majority of episodes, and Iurii Tarasov as teenage Pushkin. Bezrukov’s performance is unexpectedly persuasive, given the numerous mean-spirited reviews that came out after the earlier film’s release that indicated otherwise. Dnestrianskii plays the national icon with youthful virility and irreverent humor, at least to the extent that the film’s traditionalist framework allowed him to; his likeness to Pushkin is at times astonishing.

Natal’ia Bondarchuk wore many, perhaps too many hats in this production—screenwriter, director, general producer, and performer of the female lead role. The energy that she invested in this large-scale project must have been enormous, and her tenacity and dedication certainly deserve respect. Apparently, behind the motherly softness and benevolence of this actress-cum-director-cum-producer looms a will of iron and a rare talent for coordination and organization, not unlike that of her late father. However, the film’s weakest point—the script—proves that some tasks better would have been left to others; the plot is too incoherent and the dialogues often irritatingly banal to keep the viewer engaged. The main intended purpose of this film may have been educational in the broader sense of the word. But that would be a largely uncritical kind of education, one that avoids irony and complexity for the sake of mere reverence.

Peter Rollberg
George Washington University

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The One Love of My Soul. Russia 2007
Color. 10 parts. 520 minutes
Director: Natal’ia Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Natal’ia Bondarchuk
Camera: Masha Solov’eva, Vladimir Rongainen, Anna Melikova
Composer: Ivan Burliaev
Cast: Aleksandr Pushkin – Sergei Bezrukov, Igor’ Dnestrianskii, Iurii Tarasov; Maria Raevskaia in her youth – Sof’ia Torosian, Maria Raevskaia married Vokonskaia – Natal’ia Bondarchuk; Sergei Volkonskii – Stanislav Liubshin; Mikhail Lunin – Aleksandr Mikhailov; Vasilii Zhukovskii and the Narrator – Vladimir Iumatov. In other roles: Ivan Burliaev, Mariia Burliaeva, Marianna Vertinskaia, Natal’ia Arinbasarova, Zinaida Kirienko, Vasilii Lanovoi, Sergei Nikonenko, Anna Snatkina, Boris Khimichev.
General Producer: Natal’ia Bondarchuk
Executive Producer: Boris Pinkhasik
Production: “Zolotoi vek,” Zakharovskii Blagotvoritel’nyi Pushkinskii Fond “ISTOKI”.

Natal’ia Bondarchuk: The One Love of My Soul (Odna liubov’ dushi moei, 2007)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09