Issue 35 (2012)

Andrei Smirnov: Once There Lived a Simple Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba, 2011)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2012

babaIf the dominant version of history recounts the triumphant march of capitalist modernity, its critique from below takes the form of diverse people’s histories, told from the perspectives of those exploited, marginalized, and forgotten in the process. But if official history has already been claimed in the name of the dispossessed, how does one rewrite it from the perspective of the margins? This is what Andrei Smirnov’s film attempts to do by presenting what may be called an ordinary woman’s history of the Russian twentieth century – a woman who, at least in the title, does not even get a name.

An ordinary woman’s history of the first three decades of the 1900s is a laudable but difficult project for several reasons. Not only does it have to be etched against an incredibly violent period of transition in an inherently patriarchal society, but also has to push against the masculinist appropriation of the October Revolution. This is not a trivial act of resistance. As Eliot Borenstein argued in his illuminating book about the sexual politics of revolutionary fiction, foundational narratives of the New Soviet Man are not merely stories of immaculate conception – they involve the literal dematerialization of women from both the public sphere and the domain of private, everyday life (Borenstein 2000). Through the figure of one destitute survivor of a million physical and psychological indignities, Smirnov’s film tries to rematerialize the millions of women who were reduced to first pure bodies and then pure ideas in the rhetoric of the revolution. These were the baby, whose fleshly, grueling, and often disgusting material lives constituted the hidden third dimension of the ubiquitous peasant woman idealized in pre-revolutionary nationalist dreams as well as the surreal idiom of Soviet iconography.

babaThe woman in the movie is, not coincidentally, called Varvara (Varia); in case the audience misses the connotations of her name, a priest at the very beginning reminds her that St Barbara, who is associated with lightning, was also a famous martyr who remained misunderstood all her life. That is exactly the fate of the real Varia. She is a lightning rod of misfortune: although married into a slightly more solvent family, she breaks the marital bed, inadvertently kills the horse that tills the family plot, topples and kills her drunken father-in-law as he attempts to rape her, cannot bear children for her impetuous husband Ivan (whose name, in turn, is reminiscent of Ivan the Fool from folklore), burns down the house that the two of them build in a barren ravine, and most significantly, throughout her misshapen youth and adult life, remains the victim of countless men who ravage her body and shatter her soul. Violence, in every one of its physical and emotional manifestations, defines Varvara’s existence and makes the film very difficult to watch at many crucial conjunctures.

babaThe stark depiction of violence against women, in fact, constitutes the anchor of the tension between universality and particularity through which Smirnov’s film tries to subvert the masculinist narrative of revolutionary trauma. The title of the film, which appropriates the diction of timeless folklore, stands in stark contrast with the relentless pace of everyday life through which Varia’s drama unfolds. At the visual level, too, the movie deliberately plays with the contrast between nostalgic reconstructions of the Russian countryside and the Rabelaisian extremes of greed and lust lurking behind its panoramic landscapes and charmingly rustic folk. A particularly striking feature is the juxtaposition of animals and women at the moments when the utopian façade of Russian peasant life falls off. In a grotesque exaggeration of Tolstoy and Chekhov, who in their exposés of country life shifted the perspective from humans to animals, the camera here switches back and forth between pigs and chickens being slaughtered, skinned, and consumed in excruciating detail with women being violated in equally real time.

The alternative rhythms of folkloric timelessness and the sledgehammer temporality of realism, the friction between the stories of every ordinary woman and one particularly unfortunate one, nevertheless fails to make the subaltern speak in Once There Lived a Simple Woman. Throughout the nostalgic lost time of imperial Russia and in the new era of the people, Varia mostly grunts, screams, moans, or keeps silent.

Anindita Banerjee
Cornell University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Eliot Borenstein (2000), Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).


Once There Lived a Simple Woman, Russia 2011
Color, 156 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Andrei Smirnov
DoP: Nikolai Ivasiv, Iurii Shaigardanov
Production design: Vladimir Gudilin, Liudmila Gaintseva
Cast: Dar’ia Ekamasova, Vladislav Abashin, Maksim Averin, Aleksei Serebriakov, Roman Madianov, Evdokiia Germanova, Agrippina Steklova,
Producer: Elena Prudnikova, Andrei Smirnov, Anna Kaminskaia
Production: REKUN Cinema

Andrei Smirnov: Once There Lived a Simple Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba, 2011)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2012

Updated: 10 Jan 12