Issue 26 (2009)

Kira Muratova: Melody for a Barrel Organ (Melodiia dlia sharmanki, 2009)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2009

"Repent! Raise your eyes to the heavens!"
—Anonymous eccentric, Melody for Barrel Organ

sharmankaFor the first time since (arguably) Among Grey Stones (Sredi serykh kamnei, 1983), [1] Muratova offers us two fully formed, psychologically legible human beings. Muratova's Alena (Olena Kostiuk) and Nikita (Roma Burlaka) are two small runaway step-siblings in search of their respective fathers.  Glancing backward at Muratova's work over decades, we cannot help but recall her portrait of the children Vasia, Marusia, and Valek in this earlier film. The similarity is reinforced by the thematics of homelessness, separation through death, and endless journey. In Among Grey Stones, that journey is primarily a symbolic one to the "center of the earth," as its citation of Jules Verne's 1864 science-fiction novel seems to suggest.[2] In Melody, the journey is literal as well as symbolic. Its literal journey—a story of how the children move from place to place to seek Alena's father, then (failing that), Nikita's father—is in fact merely the staging ground for the retrospective unfurling of the film's backstory. In that symbolic journey, we learn how the mother had died, how the children had ended up in a children's home; how the staff had planned to transfer them to separate, distant institutions; how on Christmas Eve the two children bolted so as to avoid their impending separation.

sharmankaIn contrast to the pathos of these vulnerable and wholly intelligible children, Muratova pits the rest of—what we call, out of habit—humanity: thieves, delusional god-seekers, shady salesmen, petty crooks, alcoholics, larcenous mothers, two-bit gangsters, gambling addicts, flimflam artists, grifters, casino barflies, juvenile gang members, cold-hearted civil servants, jaded security guards, indifferent shopkeepers. Cumulatively, they may be recognized as Muratova's "happy and restless marionettes" (Mantsov 9), those fragmented and eccentric clusters that the filmmaker herself has referred to as "my characteristics" (Muratova, "Iskusstvo rodilos'" 94).

In their journey through life, the two children are exposed to cameo appearance of adulthood in all its grotesque perversity, cameo appearances that simultaneously function as cinematic reminders of Muratova's familiar case of magnificent actors, including Natal'ia Buz'ko, Jean-Daniel, Georgii Deliev, Leonid Kushnir, Renata Litvinova, Nina Ruslanova, and Oleg Tabakov. 

sharmankaIt is customary in Muratova's work for these "simulated humans," as one scholar has aptly dubbed them (Berry 449), to dominate the screen, leaving the viewer no diegetic respite, no recognizable human coherence. Here, by contrast, the two young siblings hold their own in the center of the film, operating as a sense-making instrument through which to watch the sequential, performative episodes. The young pair organizes the film's structure both as a linear mission (the search for the fathers) and as a comprehensive registry of delusional behavior.

In an inventory of features about runaway or abandoned children—the most familiar Russian pair are Valerka and Galia in Vitalii Kanevskii's Freeze, Die, Come to Life [Zamri, Umri, Voskresni, 1989]—the commonplace resolutions include the reunion with lost family members or the painful separation of the children to facilitate another stage of maturation in the implicit Bildungskino. As ever, Muratova finds her own quirky alternative to these conventions, one that is as heartbreaking as it is virtually imperceptible. The film is long; it is easy toward the end to miss the very resolution—so incipient and so familiar—that Muratova does not permit. It is as if we viewers were in constant danger, through our own inattention, of letting the children slip from us, as even the most well-meaning adults of this film have done: "watching the children" takes on multiple registers of vigilance.

sharmankaIf we hold our attention fast, the film will reward us in ways that belie the apparently improvisational tendencies Muratova has been known to love. Exposed to the relentless cold of Christmas weather, the children wander in to an art auction, its hall filled with lush tropical plants, a jungle of wealth and privilege. There, in this thirteenth episode of the film, the auctioneers are presenting the item (Lot Number 13, as it is identified) that lends its name to the film: a beautiful, antique barrel organ. As the auction models crank the barrel-organ handle, as its melody begins and the children are escorted from the hall, the affinities of the barrel organ and the camera apparatus align themselves in their artistic rendition of a story of separation. The auction excludes the children; the barrel organ's director does not.  Indeed, its melody, Separation [Razluka], dominates the remainder of the film ("Why should we part?  Why live separate from one another?"). As we watch Nikita inadvertently separated from his beloved sister and just missing a chance encounter with his father, it would seem that the fact of separation—including our separation as a condition of being—is primary among Muratova's conditions of life.  Worthy of lament (as the song and the film so eloquently perform), it is a condition in Muratova's cinema that is not available to recovery.  Indeed, the film ends on a seemingly random, even haphazard note, as if the barrel-organ handle had stopped turning.  The actors, frozen in Gogolian dumbshow, except for the recurrent idiotic hiccupping, hold their places around the tiny figure of Nikita, finally dead of exposure.[3]

The reader may remember Muratova's strong affection for perorating religious eccentrics, their charm enhanced by the knowledge that the filmmaker herself is an entrenched non-believer (Gersova 162; Morozova 4; Dolin; Getmanchuk). And so one particular anonymous orator—of whom the film provides a splendid array—deserves special mention. Gesticulating at the domed ceiling ("Repent!  Raise your eyes to the heavens!"), the religious prophet commands us to glance aloft.   Muratova's cameraman Vladimir Pankov pans the camera pans upward beyond the chandelier, where we see an absolutely blank space.  It is, so to speak, a classic Muratovian sight gag—"…to the heavens… oops! Nothing there: see?"—an understated, amusing moment for those (including this reviewer) who admire the film director's love of desecration for its own sake.

sharmankaBut let us connect this theological sight gag with a second practice of Pankov: the film is replete with recurring aerial shots, downward at her hapless marionettes. At first visually haphazard or aestheticized—for example, the bird's eye view of sleeping travelers, arranged on sofas as a stunning, tessellated shot—these aerial shots become more saturated with significance, culminating in a direct overhead shot of the balloons that obscure the little Nikita, now separated—implicitly forever—from his sister Alena. As viewers, with Pankov, we stand in that place of observation where the deity would have stood; it is we, looking down, to whom the importuning visionary would earlier have us raise our eyes in repentance.  What we see here is surely a secular retort to a culture increasingly preoccupied with bogoiskatel'stvo [God-seeking]. 

While the urge to enumerate Muratova's signature devices is all but irresistible—the three sets of twins, the stumbling blind men with canes, the portrait of homeless dogs, the operatic declamations—a more challenging line of investigation is the way in which this film redefines a theme that has preoccupied Muratova's attention from the earliest films: civilization as feral life. Apparently feral by civilization's norms, the two homeless children, stunningly acted by Kostiuk and Burlaka, undercut the very standards that had thrown such obstacles in Muratova's early professional path, and stand as uncharacteristic figures in the filmmaker's work.  Neither simulated humans, nor restless marionettes, nor merely the filmmaker's characteristics, they are given a rare chance to be fully cohesive human beings.

Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum


1]Among the Grey Stones, one of Muratova's least-examined Stagnation-era films, sometimes lists its director as the non-existent Ivan Sidorov. When the film was severely cut, its negatives destroyed, and the director's version lost, Muratova removed her name from the credits; the generic pseudonym Ivan Sidorov was substituted. In subsequent interviews (e.g. Bozhovich, "Rentgenoskopiia" 70), Muratova has not disavowed the work. On this and other films, see Taubman, Condee.

2] In Among Grey Stones, the Judge (Stanislav Govorukhin) suggests that son Vasia's belief that "grey stones suck away life" comes from Jules Verne. In Chapter Fifteen ("Snæfell at Last") of Voyage au centre de la Terre, explorers descend into the Islandic volcano Snæfellsjökull to reach the center of the earth, where they encounter a landscape of grey stones.

3] I am grateful for discussions with Vladimir Padunov concerning the film's concluding choices.

Works Cited

Berry, Ellen E. "Grief and Simulation in Kira Muratova's The Aesthenic Syndrome." Russian Review July 1988: 446-454.

Bozhovich, V. "Rentgenoskopiia dushi." Iskusstvo kino 9 (1987): 51-70.

Condee, Nancy. The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Dolin, A. "Kira Muratova: Obozhaiu klounadu." 128 (28 June 2002).

Gersova, L., comp. "Kira Muratova otvechaet zriteliam." Kinovedcheskie zapiski 13 (1992): 157-68.
Getmanchuk, A. "Kira Muratova: Pravda vsegda shokiruet." Komsomol'skaia Pravda 127 (2 June 1990).

Mantsov, I. "Kollektivnoe telo kak romanticheskii geroi-liubovnik." Iskusstvo kino 8 (1994): 7-9.

Morozova, N. "Kira Muratova: Fikus—eto rastenie. I ne bolee togo." Sovetskaia molodezh 24 October 1990: 4-5.

Muratova, Kira. "Iskusstvo rodilos' iz zapretov, styda i strakha." Interview by Pavel Sirkes. Iskusstvo kino 2 (1995): 90-98.

Taubman, Jane A. Kira Muratova. KINOfiles Filmmakers' Companions 4. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Melody for Barrel Organ, Ukraine 2009
Color, 153 minutes
Director: Kira Muratova
Scriptwriters: Vladimir Zuev and Kira Muratova
Cinematography: Vladimir Pankov
Art Director: Evgenii Golubenko
Cast: Olena Kostiuk and Roma Burlaka
Producer: Oleg Kokhan
Production: Sota Cinema Group

Kira Muratova: Melody for a Barrel Organ (Melodiia dlia sharmanki, 2009)

reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2009

Updated: 01 Oct 09