Issue 31 (2011)

Lidiia Bobrova: I Believe! (Veruiu!, 2009)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys © 2011

veruyuLidiia Bobrova has dedicated her professional career to films about the glubinka, the past and present rural Russia to which she was born and which continues to inspire her work. I Believe! is based on three stories by Vasilii Shukshin of the 1960s-70s,“Zaletnyi,” “Veruiu” and “Zabuksoval,” which the director-scriptwriter has integrated into an updated narrative of contemporary provincial Russia. Because of budget constraints, the film was shot in the Arkhangelsk region rather than the Altai and, unlike Bobrova’s previous film, Babusia (2003), employs professional actors in the lead roles.

veruyuLike Egor Prokudin, the uprooted peasant of Shukshin’s Red Guelderbush (Kalina krasnaia, 1973), Maksim Iarikov is a man in search of himself. This ordinary railroad worker who, like Tolstoi’s fateful peasant in Anna Karenina, bangs the iron wheels of train cars to check their soundness, is deeply tormented. His soul aches (“dusha bolit”) because he cannot find meaning in his life as he searches for something in which to believe. Overwhelmed by metaphysical doubts, Maksim goes on a binge which lands him in jail—and in comic trouble—when he claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine and then sold its blueprint to the Americans. Bailed out by his wife and sleeping it off, he hears his young son reciting a school assignment—Gogol’s famous apostrophe to the Russia of galloping steeds and troika at the end of Dead Souls, part one: “Ne tak li i ty, Rus’, chto boikaia, neobgonimaia troika nesesh’sia?” (“Rus’, in your headlong flight, are you not like a lively troika that none can overtake?”) Maksim suddenly realizes that the familiar troika is carrying none other than Chichikov, just as modern Russia rushes forward transporting crooks and scam artists. In desperation, he goes to visit a former priest who advises him simply to believe in life, convincing him (after a few drinks) to declare his faith in both the sacred and profane, by repeatedly shouting “I believe!”

veruyuSeven years pass, it is 2006 and the now abstemious Maksim becomes acquainted with Aleksandr, a terminally ill artist living out his last days in the village. The artist teaches Maksim to love God through the beauties of nature that surround them. Maksim’s exasperated wife, whose heft opposes Maksim’s preoccupation with “soul” by an excess of body, persuades the local policeman to threaten Aleksandr for leading Maksim to ignore his responsibilities at home. Aleksandr soon dies and Maksim blames his now repentant wife. He sits alienated from the dancing villagers celebrating his son’s wedding, but then realizes that he will finally find meaning in life through a podvig, the heroic religious feat of rebuilding the village church destroyed during the Soviet era. The film ends with Maksim’s son and daughter-in-law, standing among the church ruins, as the young woman reads an orthodox prayer asking God to let the Russian people know why he created them, to let them know his holy will.

veruyuExcept for a few episodes enlivened by dialogue from the Shukshin stories, I Believe! is a failure. Unlike Bobrova’s earlier films, such as Oh you, Geese (Oi, vy, gusi 1991), In That Land (V toi strane 1997) and Babusia (2003), I Believe! preaches rather than shows, and conveys a simplistic message through conventional means. Oh you, Geese, with its austerely beautiful cinematography, is a complex and nuanced film which leaves us to infer the tragedies moving its characters. Bobrova’s other films present village life and values at their best and worst, as both naturalistic and lyrical—the local drunks, their long-suffering, often violent wives, the abused wise peasant, the selfless grandmother rejected by the now prosperous grandchildren she has raised, the former criminal turned cattleherder, the well-meaning but career-conscious farm chairman, the villagers with haunting folk songs in their blood. In I Believe! Bobrova transfers Shukshin’s Stagnation era chudik to post-Soviet Russia (does he even still exist?) while grotesquely updating and cleansing the writer’s narratives. Aleksandr leads Maksim to God in nature by showing him a Hallmark card-type DVD of flowers, mountain streams and baby birds, projected on a large flat screen TV, which Maksim then inherits. The philosophically unconventional orthodox priest consulted by Maksim is made more acceptable by having been defrocked (not the case in Shukshin) and the saintly Aleksandr drinks only when berated by the policeman. The problem lies not so much in Bobrova’s traditional message—the answer to all of Russia’s ills is a return to the Orthodox faith—but in her beating us over the head with it, without constructing a dramatically compelling narrative. Nikita Mikhalkov, campaigner against what he terms the chernukha of contemporary filmmaking, must have been pleased. 

Rimgaila Salys
University of Colorado at Boulder

Comment on this review on Facebook

I Believe!, Russia, 2009
Color, 90 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Lidiia Bobrova
Cinematography: Valerii Revich
Art Direction: Iurii Suchkov
Cast: Aleksandr Aravushkin, Irina Osnovina, Sergei Amosov, Fedor Iasnikov, Aleksandr Fedorov, Iurii Zhigar’kov
Production: Lenfil’m, Narodnyi fil’m
Producers: Viacheslav Tel’nov, Lidiia Bobrova 

Lidiia Bobrova: I Believe! (Veruiu!, 2009)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys © 2011

Updated: