Issue 27 (2010)
Vera Storozheva: Spring Will Soon Be Here (Skoro vesna, 2009)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2010
Holy Fools, Nuns and Witches: Gender and Spirituality in Vera Storozheva's Spring Will Soon Be Here
Vera Storozheva describes her new film Spring Will Soon Be Here as more accessible and entertaining than her 2007 Traveling with Pets, an award-winning picture that features Spring’s lead actress Kseniia Kutepova in the lead role (Mukhina). The great number of visual, stylistic, and thematic parallels between the two films prompts a comparative analysis, which establishes Spring as less coherent and conceptually different from its remarkable predecessor. If the 2007 film promoted female agency, independence and desire for change, the new feature disappoints the initiated viewer with its rather traditional view of women and their role in society.
In Traveling with Pets, an exploited and emotionally numb orphan, the wife of a railroad trackman, attains spiritual awakening following the death of her domineering husband. The heroine’s inner quest documents the “softening of her angry heart,” as symbolically suggested by an Orthodox priest’s gift of the eponymous icon. Before Natalia can obtain her true mind and soul, she must learn not only to connect to others, but also to love and respect herself. In the course of the film, she tries out a number of patriarchal scenarios for her new life (as bride, whore, and remarried woman), but consecutively rejects them all to locate her self worth in her striving for freedom and independence. While Natalia ultimately becomes an adoptive mother (thereby fulfilling her womanly essence), her rejection of a circumscribing marriage in favor of a spiritual connection with another orphan sends a refreshingly liberating message to the women in Storozheva’s audiences.
In Spring, which Storozheva terms an eccentric drama (“Kinotavr”), Kutepova goes on to play another asocial and introverted woman tormented by personal trauma, but here the heroine, a nun in a provincial monastery, will move to a less prominent position. Mother Catherine cares for a monastery farmstead, sheltering a dozen male vagabonds who share close quarters with the farm’s animals. The compassionate animal motif with cows and goats nurturing the needy with their “healing” milk reverberates with the emotional support and nurture Natalia received from her goat and dog in Traveling with Pets. Helping Mother Catherine is a naïve and kindhearted sixteen-year-old “charity nurse” Olia (Ol’ga Popova), whom the nun brought in from a nearby orphanage. The women’s male charges pledge to stay away from alcohol and the opposite sex, and help with tending to the animals while they survive the winter there. The members of this motley community refer to each other as brothers, help build a chapel, read Scripture, and participate in the nightly ritual of asking forgiveness from God and each other. On her visits to a nearby town, Olia periodically picks up other stray souls to look after and save. On one such trip she finds Pavel (Sergei Puskepalis), a charismatic albeit carefree businessman who had crashed his car in the area. Olia’s caring heart immediately falls for the man who looks helpless and disoriented away from his executive environment. Her devotion to him only intensifies when she finds out that he has been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. As the story unfolds, we discover that Pavel is actually a ghost from Mother Catherine’s past. The three central characters have much soul-searching to do before attaining spiritual peace and forgiveness.
Mother Catherine, who maintains the public profile of an all-forgiving holy woman, resembles Natalia in Traveling with Pets, in that she must also confront her personal trauma and “soften her heart.” But here the process yields different results: if Natalia’s emotional journey emphasized her liberation from an oppressive relationship as she discovered an ability to love herself as well as others, Mother Catherine’s transformation involves renouncing her innate striving for independence from an unfaithful lover who toyed with and then abandoned her. In becoming a nun, the heroine sought to escape the trauma caused by the death of her young son. When the boy got ill, Tamara (her lay name) did everything she could to save the boy, but failed. After he learns of the tragedy, the boy's absentee father, none other than Pavel, sets out to find her. Throughout Pavel’s sojourn at the farm, Mother Catherine consistently denies any prior knowledge of him as she tries to banish any memory of her painful past. At a nightly forgiveness ritual, she forgives Pavel in her guise as Mother Catherine, yet refuses to forgive him when he addresses her as Tamara. Contrary to viewer expectations, the film focuses not so much on Pavel’s guilt as on Tamara/Mother Catherine’s disproportionate sense of pride that renders her service to God hypocritical and selfish. Instead of apologizing to her for his absence, Pavel chastises Mother Catherine for wanting to put all the blame on him, while, he alleges, it is her enormous pride that brought about the tragedy. “Everything could’ve been different if you were not so proud. Why didn’t you find me? I would’ve turned the world upside down but I would’ve saved him,” implores the well-connected businessman. His accusatory rhetoric is validated in the end, when he returns from Switzerland fully recovered from his allegedly incurable brain cancer.
While he has his own flaws, Pavel’s criticism of the heroine’s “selfish” ways looks particularly unbalanced, because it is rendered through witty comments and charming jibes that appear to be written to amuse the viewer: “The Bastille has fallen; the monarchy, the Bolsheviks, and the main hero have all collapsed, but Holy Tamara ascends to heavens stepping over dead bodies,” is just one example of Pavel’s snide remarks about Mother Catherine’s sanctity that is bound to produce amused chuckles in the audience.
Even after Pavel has had a chance to observe the other men’s respect for Catherine, he reserves for himself the right to take the heroine to task for her moral failings: “I have come to you with so many interesting questions, but you have nothing but boring answers left. You have become so incredibly correct.” Mother Catherine’s moralizing “You come in order to destroy. Other people are just toys for you. You break one, there are many more left to play with. You have enough money, you are in a constant search for new sensations,” stands no chance against Pavel’s articulate witticisms.
Storozheva’s choice of actors for the two central roles adds to this imbalance. The naturally charming and positively ingratiating Puskepalis has become associated with the flawed but inherently decent character he played in Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007), his cinematic debut that garnered him multiple Best Actor awards. Kseniia Kutepova’s asocial and somewhat autistic performing style proves to be too subtle for a film that tries to be funny and entertaining.
This disparity in depicting the moral accountability of the two leads doesn’t seem to be an intentional strategy for Storozheva, who sincerely loves her lead actress and the heroine Kutepova plays. It looks like her subconsciously partial attitude to her male lead originates in the patriarchal system of values that charges women with more responsibility for preserving the family and taking care of the children than men.
The film’s holy fool Olia perhaps best embodies this patriarchal attitude. She is selfless to the point of being self-denying, and nurturing to the point of being asexual. Her pathological sense of selflessness is best summarized in her story about the boy she loved who would pet her hair with dirty hands as a practical joke. She doesn’t mind this kind of treatment because her hair is the last thing she cares about, as she is totally devoted to caring for others. Olia’s mothering instinct is so intense that she treats every male in distress as a child in need of a “charity nurse.” She “adopts” Pavel and cuddles him like a sick child until he fully recovers from his spiritual and physical injuries, at which point she moves on to another ailing body and soul. In the end, Olia refuses Pavel’s offer to pay for her medical education abroad because she cannot leave this new charge who desperately needs her help. Olia not only gives Pavel what Tamara/ Mother Catherine has failed to provide, but also rebels against the nun for ignoring Pavel’s needs. While we never hear Olia criticize Pavel (she sees his wealth as his only flaw), she does confront Mother Catherine about her failure to love him. Believing that only Catherine’s love is capable of saving Pavel, she pronounces the most damning charge against the obstinate nun: “He loves you and you don’t love him. You don’t love anybody, and I don’t love you.”
The film defines this patriarchal ideal in contradistinction to Mother Catherine’s feminine pride as well as to the assertive behavior of a sexually liberated woman. One of the male tenants has a sexual encounter with a woman whose physicality takes over her spiritual essence. Represented as a wild animal, she scratches the man on the back and demands that he leave this holy space in order to be with her. As the two lovers ride away on a horse (yet another reference to sensuality that needs reigning in), Olia runs after them showering the woman (and significantly not the man) with insulting and sexist names, such as “a pig on a horse,” “a stupid woman,” and “a witch.” Later the man, named Roman, confesses to Pavel that in his heart he really came to believe in the pious life promoted by Mother Catherine and Olia, but that the devil still tempts him “below the belt,” thus equating the sexually independent woman with the devil.
While Pavel undergoes an emotional transformation as well, it is depicted in less judgmental terms. His character is portrayed as more playful and loveable, the kind of irresistibly funny and charming guy that immediately wins everyone’s, save Mother Catherine’s, heart, even after his actions cause the farm’s male population to spend a night in jail. Pavel proceeds to subvert Mother Catherine’s authority over her vagabond charges by sponsoring their drinking parties and treating them to gourmet dinners. During one such celebration of independent spirits, the ecstatic men chant “Free-dom! Free-dom!” thus expressing their protest against the farmstead’s overly strict regimen. When one of the “brothers” intervenes, juxtaposing the vagabonds’ dangerous life in the outside world with the peace and quiet of their existence at the farm, his appeal sounds rather boring and unconvincing.
In the light of Pavel’s extreme popularity with the majority of the film’s characters, his dismissive and self-serving treatment of Olia, whose name he does not bother to remember until the very end, is easily overlooked. Equally inconsequential seems Pavel’s fleeting admission of sexual profligacy. The viewer has to work hard to connect this revelation to Pavel’s failed relationship with Tamara. Finally, it is difficult to correlate the climactic burning of the chapel with Pavel’s corruptive influence upon its builders; most viewers will leave the cinema wondering about the significance of this cleansing fire.
Since Pavel’s loveable nature and popularity overshadows his personal shortcomings, the symbolism of cancer consuming his erring brain appears too grave for this otherwise lightweight movie. The bouts of migraine caused by the tumor prompt Pavel’s three prophetic visions in the film, each of them bringing him closer to embracing spiritual values over the power and hubris given him by his material wealth. The successful removal of the tumor symbolizes not only Pavel’s spiritual growth, but also the power of Mother Catherine’s forgiveness that Olia deemed essential for Pavel’s recovery-cum-salvation. After this miraculous recovery, Pavel returns to the farmstead humbled, asking for Mother Catherine’s permission to take Olia abroad to pursue her love of healing at a state-of-the-art medical school. Olia’s refusal, however, indicates that Pavel’s awakening may not be complete, for he continues to confuse her commitment to spiritual healing with the purely physical cure offered by medical science.
In the end, the farmstead returns to its uneventful routine as Pavel prepares to go abroad alone. While physically, little has changed, viewers can note a change at the spiritual level: both Catherine and Pavel have attained a higher level of personal humility. The spring is finally here, but it will not bring forth new life, because the characters will never be together again.
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Mukhina, Maria. “Vera Storozheva: ‘Festival’—odna iz glavnykh vozmozhnostei pokazat' kartinu’”, Proficinema, 14 June 2009.
“Kinotavr: ‘Skoro vesna,’ 6-oi den’ konkursa,” CTC-TV, 14 June 2009
Spring Will Soon Be Here, Russia, 2009
Color, 100 minutes
Director Vera Storozheva
Screenplay: Irina Vasil’eva
Cinematography: Vladimir Klimov
Art Director: Sergei Filenko
Music: Il’ia Shipilov
Cast: Kseniia Kutepova, Sergei Puskepalis, Ol’ga Popova, Aleksandr Naumov, Vadim Afanasiev, Dmitrii Chernov, Nikolai Kozak, Evgenii Kniazev
Producer: Vera Storozheva
Production: SV-Aurum, Teleservis, with participation from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Vera Storozheva: Spring Will Soon Be Here (Skoro vesna, 2009)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2010