Issue 63 (2019)

Eduard Parri: Once Upon a Time (Zhili-byli, 2017)

reviewed by Daniil Ilin© 2019

zhili-byli Eduard Parri’s Once Upon a Time takes place in a remote, nearly deserted village somewhere in Russia. Being as far from civilization as it is, the village is inhabited by only four people, everyone in their sixties. However, it does not take long from the film’s start for one of the four characters, Sania, to die in an attempt to fix the circuit breaker box in the state of drunken haze, leaving the entire village to three people: the best friends Grishka (Fedor Dobronravov) and Lekha (Roman Madianov), as well as now widowed Tat’iana (Irina Rozanova). This essentially sums up the humorless opening on which the rest of the rural comedy is built. What is to come next is pretty obvious: the classical rivalry for the heart of a beautiful woman.

As Grishka decides he is fed up with feeling lonely in the unpopulated village, he comes up with a plan to marry Tat’iana. However, before proposing to her, Grishka shares his plan with his best friend, who feels deeply offended and betrayed. In an act of revenge, Lekha decides to propose to Tat’iana as well, primarily to mess with Grishka’s plan. Lekha’s actions lead to a battle between the two friends, both fighting for Tat’iana’s attention, allowing the comedy to develop and filling the film with multiple humorous situations and laughable moments.

However, a film solely about two male characters fighting for a woman would not make a solid plot, so Parri decided to add the topic of remembering and acknowledging one’s roots into the mix. The two friends, Grishka and Lekha, as well as Tat’iana, who eventually becomes the third member in the friendship, are portrayed as the last people standing in the village, trying by all means to hold onto their household, refusing to move to the city, dismissing the driver who complains about how unprofitable it is to deliver food to their village, or dismissing their relatives, who keep suggesting that the three move. 

zhili-byli The bond with one’s roots is especially emphasized in the scene in which Grishka goes to the city and visits his brother Vitia (Vladimir Kapustin). Parri does a brilliant job framing the scene, in which the two have a conversation on the balcony, using the mise-en-scène to emphasize how separated two brothers are in their worldviews. The difference in their perspectives on life is accentuated in every little detail, from their outfits to what they are smoking: while Grishka is smoking a regular old-school cigarette, Vitia is struggling with his electronic heat-stick. And when Grishka tells his brother to visit him in the village, Vitia responds: “What is there to see? It is as if you live on a deserted island. Don’t you see life going past you?”; and yet, he still ends up asking Grishka for a “normal cigarette.” This can be interpreted as the director’s attempt to deliver the fact that they cannot run from their roots and will eventually come back to where they belong and will do what feels right rather try to adjust to mainstream lifestyle even if it does not suit them.

Given the fairly simple plot, it was only sensible for Eduard Parri to gather support from the talented actors who play the main parts. Through their performances, the story is more than acceptable to watch, yet when thinking about the film further, it could be boiled down to a bunch of simple acting sketches in a village. However, these sketches are worth watching—there is nearly everything rural life can offer, be it a goat that keeps constantly getting into trouble while its owner is distracted; attempts at fixing the windmill to provide the village with electricity; or a sacred ritual of killing a pig that everyone avoids to perform—all that on top of the struggle for a woman’s heart. This struggle, however, is without bad intentions between the men. Although Grishka and Lekha want it to be seen as a fierce fight, the two are really incapable of making it one, since they have known each other for their entire lives, so the victory of friendship is only a matter of (screen) time.

zhili-byliWhen watching a comedy film one generally expects it to be funny, which is why the characters of Once Upon a Time are essentially farcical cranks. Both the filmmakers and the actors make just a little fun of the village freaks, with no bad intentions. This is reflected in the naturalistic performances of the principal actors, whose characters cannot even get mad at their pets that keep doing all kinds of comedic things. This is especially portrayed in the episode where Marinka, the goat, gets into trouble once again, now requiring assistance with a rope to be rescued from a pit. This sequence also highlights the character dynamics in the film: when the rope that Tat’iana has brought to save Marinka snaps, Lekha figuratively also snaps and pours out everything on his mind regarding the threesome relationship. The rope can also be interpreted as a metaphor for Grishka’s and Lekha’s friendship that, as Tat’iana says, can “lift an elephant,” and yet snaps under the goat’s weight. However, unlike the rope, the friendship is eventually restored, and Lekha apologizes to Tat’iana for everything he has said. In a different solution, the film would belong to the genre of drama.

The only downside of the comedy is its obtrusive “soil-bound” concept, which is introduced early on in the film when Lekha suggests that they merge their vegetable garden with Grishka. As the film progresses, however, this idea of creating a communal farm becomes even more pertinent; this would be fine had it not been for this concept being present in nearly every scene of the film, even outside the relevant story-line. Both the pressing idea of a communal farm as well as the overarching message of “better together” would have been more relevant and better understood had the film been produced a couple of decades ago. However, even this somewhat distracting component can be seen as a way to emphasize the extent to which the three main characters are stuck in the past. 

With a Russian background, I see Once Upon a Time as a film that presents a realistic depiction of the old Russian way of life, the Russian people and their moral values, especially in regard to their roots. Characters such as the deaf grandmother Marusia, who paradoxically wakes up every time someone turns her TV off because she cannot hear it, and who only cares for her house when talking to Grisha, feel as if they had been drawn from life. The concept of caring about one’s roots and about the Motherland in general is central to Russian culture, and the film delivers this idea in the best possible way. It is not just a story about a village that is on the verge of becoming extinct, but about such complex topics as loneliness, love, and values. It is about simple things that are the most valuable in everyone’s life.

Daniil Ilin
New York University

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Once Upon a Time, Russia, 2017
Color, 85 min.
Director: Eduard Parri
Script: Aleksei Borodachev
Cinematographer: Mariia Solov’eva
Composer: Leonid Agutin
Production Design: Fedor Savel’ev
Cast: Fedor Dobronravov, Roman Madianov, Irina Rozanova, Viktor Suprun, Vladimir Kapustin
Producers: Ekaterina Sarycheva, Fedor Dobronravov, Irina Pavlova
Production: Fedor Dobronravov’s Producing Center
Release: 15 March 2018

Eduard Parri: Once Upon a Time (Zhili-byli, 2017)

reviewed by Daniil Ilin© 2019

Updated: 2019