Issue 74 (2021)

Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: The Thunderstorm (Groza, 2019)

reviewed by Oshank Hashemi © 2021

grozaSince his second feature film Pussycat (Koshechka 2009), director and scriptwriter Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii has utilized classical Russian literature as a meta-narrative to present a critical commentary on contemporary Russian society. For example, in Russian Psycho (Russkii bes 2018), Konstantinopol’skii merges diabolical characters drawn from the literary works of Fedor Dostoevsky, Fedor Sologub, and Alexander Pushkin—as well as Bret Easton Ellis—in the antihero Sviatoslav, played by Ivan Makarevich. In this film, the director uses classical literature not just as a compass with which to gauge Russian society’s shifting morality through the historic events of the 1990s, but also as a means of soul searching in an attempt to understand the ontological essence of the country’s national identity. Russian Psycho consequently paints a palimpsestic image of contemporary Russia; as Ol’ga Kas’ianova puts it in her review for Iskusstvo kino, Konstantinopol’skii’s antihero is the quintessence of Russia, where “nothing leaves, but everything fits in layers of different densities that grow together over time into a strange, terrible, and funny picture” (Kas’ianova 2019). 

Konstantinopol’skii’s subsequent film, an adaptation of Aleksandr Ostrovskii’s play The Thunderstorm (Groza), premiered in competition at the Kinotavr Film Festival 2019. As in Russian Psycho, the director’s principal aim is to shed light on the ongoing evolution of Russia’s national character, but in this instance his starting point is not “the chaotic 1990s” (likhie devianostye)—an era that Konstantinopol’skii feels Russia has not yet left behind (Petrik 2019)—but 1859, the year when Ostrovskii wrote the play on which the film is based. This broader perspective allows the director to present a more comprehensive overview of Russian history. While Russian Psycho may be characterized as a postmodern, intertextual adaptation of several classical works, The Thunderstorm is quite faithful to Ostrovskii’s original play. Although the context has been updated to contemporary Russia, some of the characters’ professions have been changed, and Konstantinopol’skii has infused the film with a large dose of fantastical elements, the overall plot and much of the dialogue remain unchanged.

grozaIn marked contrast to Vladimir Petrov’s 1934 adaptation of The Thunderstorm, which was filmed during the Stalinist era with the explicit aim of exposing the unjust mercantile culture of Tsarist Russia, Konstantinopol’skii’s film attempts to demonstrate that, while Russia has experienced undeniable economic progress since the middle of the 19th century, the mindset of the country’s socio-political elite has never changed. This view echoes that of the well-known literary critic Nikolai Dobroliubov, who in his 1860 review of the play characterized Russia as a “Kingdom of Darkness,” in which the elite lived in a state of lies, ignorance, and tyranny, while those who attempted to disrupt the status quo were invariably silenced by authoritarian powers (Dobroliubov 1979). As the reviewer Pavel Solomatin points out, this theme of a deep divide between the power-brokers and the rest of Russian society is as relevant today as it was in the 1850s (Solomatin 2019).

grozaKonstantinopol’skii draws attention to this centuries-old rift, as well as the current situation in Russia, by remaining faithful to Ostrovskii’s original, archaic dialogue, especially when it is spoken by elderly characters who personify Domostroi—Russia’s strict rules of good housekeeping and social etiquette that date back to the 16th century. In this respect, Konstantinopol’skii’s Thunderstorm resembles both Vladimir Mirzoev’s 2011 adaptation of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov—a biting satirical commentary on Russia’s feudal political institutions, which have persisted into the 21st century (Borislavov 2013)—and Roman Kachanov’s controversial, absurdist parody of Dostoevskii’s The IdiotDown House (2001)[1]—which charts the rise of unfettered capitalism and the simultaneous resurgence of religion and spirituality in 1990s Russia (Vernitski 2005). Konstantinopol’skii’s film may be similarly categorized as a commentary on contemporary socio-political conditions as it mocks the official state discourse on traditional values and Russia’s “Sonderweg” (osobyi put’), in which the nation is revered as a unique, God-chosen, God-enlightened, and God-glorified civilization. Moreover, it may be seen as a critique of the Kremlin’s characterization of itself as both the guardian and defender of conservative values and Orthodox Christianity and the chief architect of Russia’s technological progress. The director himself summarized this paradox by quoting Petr Stolypin, who once said, “In Russia, every ten years everything changes, and nothing changes in two hundred years” (Festival Kinotavr 2019), while Roman Os’minkin suggests that “Konstantinopol’skii reads Ostrovskii’s play as a script with elements of parody […] and a satire on the immutability of Russian mores from 1859 to 2019” (Os’minkin 2020).

grozaKonstantinopol’skii’s film version of The Thunderstorm tells the story of Katerina, who lives in the provincial city of Kalinov on the Volga River with her strict, conservative mother-in-law Kabanova and her insipid, weak husband Tikhon, who lacks the resolve to defy his mother. Although he tells Katerina he loves her, Tikhon invariably takes his mother’s side whenever she subjects her daughter-in-law to her suffocating Domostroi house rules or threatens her with God’s punishment when she refuses to obey her elders or observe Orthodox Christian norms. When Boris, the mayor’s cousin, returns to Kalinov after living in London, he and Katerina instantly fall in love, then start an affair as soon as Tikhon leaves town on a business trip. Katerina suffers from a strong sense of guilt and remorse but continues with the affair and eventually confesses her love for Boris after Tikhon returns home unexpectedly.

In the film, as in the play, Katerina is portrayed as a wistful dreamer who yearns for freedom. However, whereas her profession (if any) is not specified in the original stage version, Konstantinopol’skii accentuates her despair by condemning her to an unfulfilling job as well as an unhappy marriage: she works as a waitress in her mother-in-law’s restaurant, where Tikhon is the head of security. Kabanova, a successful businesswoman who owns a hotel as well as the restaurant, maintains a cold, sadistic, and overbearing attitude throughout the movie. Meanwhile, Tikhon’s sister Varvara—who enjoys clandestine night-time rendezvous with her lover Kudriash—avoids condemnation because she is discreet and keeps the affair under wraps (shito kryto). She cannot understand why Katerina does not do the same—that is, pretend to respect and abide by society’s rules while doing the exact opposite. She reminds her that she lives in Russia, where falsehoods and deceit are the norm and the whole house of cards is built on a lie. Thus, if she wants to survive, she must learn to be dishonest. Unfortunately for Katerina, she is unable to accept this advice, and her conscience continues to haunt her.

The film is full of visual, musical, and intertextual references to cultural artefacts that evoke a Russia frozen in time. Indeed, Kabanova’s house is reminiscent of a museum, a hermetically sealed environment where some of Russia’s most enduring traditions, customs, and beliefs are preserved and protected from the outside world. The windows are just large enough to let in some light, the ceilings are low, leaving no room to stretch upwards, and the walls are covered with icons and paintings (including Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga; 1870–1873), perhaps to suggest that Russia has scarcely progressed since Ostrovskii’s time. A portrait of Kabanova’s deceased husband dominates the center of the house, signifying that Russia remains a deeply patriarchal society in which all the real power remains in the hands of men, irrespective of the strength and industry of the nation’s women.

grozaOne of the most interesting characters in Konstantinopol’skii’s adaptation of The Thunderstorm is Kuligin, a close friend of Tikhon. A good-natured, self-taught mechanic in the play, in the film he is transformed into a civil-rights activist and rapper who rails against society’s prevailing norms and values. The scenes in which he records his raps—“Woman Is Not a Commodity,” “Animals Are Not Food,” and so on—are shot like pop videos,[2] while the songs themselves—all of which are reworkings of Kuligin’s monologues in the original play—form part of the diegetic narrative. During the press conference at The Thunderstorm’s premiere, Konstantinopol’skii announced that, to his mind, the film’s central figure is not Katerina, but Kuligin. He makes videos not to enrich himself but to enlighten Russian society, and he wants to launch a fund that will provide financial support to other independent poets and artists (Festival Kinotavr 2019). Unfortunately, these ambitions are quashed, because the authorities intervene every time he tries to record a video.

In addition to transforming Kuligin from a mechanic into a rapper, Konstantinopol’skii converts several of the play’s older characters into hypocritical members of the local political and social elite. For example, Kabanova is in close contact with both Mayor Dikoi and the ultra-conservative parliamentarian Barynia. The latter preaches the official discourse on traditional values and urges young people “to eat, pray, and respect their elders,” yet she often drinks alcohol and dines extensively in Kabanova’s restaurant. Another character, Feklusha—whom Ostrovskii describes as “a wanderer” in the play—is now a participant in The Battle of Psychic Challenge. After accepting the mayor’s invitation to give a performance in Kalinov’s central square, she condemns foreign countries’ unjust, anti-Orthodox regimes while dressed from head to toe in Western designer labels.

During a discussion between a resigned and depressed Tikhon and Kuligin, we learn that Katerina has been placed under house arrest on a charge of blasphemy after offending the local congregation by confessing to her affair with Boris in church. The two men subsequently hear that she has fled, so they set out to find her, whereupon they are suddenly joined by a group of extraterrestrials. This is a prime example of Konstantinopol’skii’s increasing use of incongruous, surreal elements—such as Kuligin’s rap songs, dancing dolphins, and contemporary language as well as alien visitations—over the course of the film, to such an extent that Ostrovskii’s melodrama is ultimately transformed into a farce. By now, Katerina’s extramarital affair is big news in Kalinov as she has been widely reviled on social media as an anti-Russian slut who will surely burn in hell. When she and Boris meet for the last time, Boris, to Katerina’s dismay, refuses to run away with her because his uncle has threatened to enroll him in the Russian navy if he persists with the affair. It is in this scene—along with an earlier one in which Katerina gives full vent to her libidinous desire—that Konstantinopol’skii deviates most sharply from Ostrovskii’s original text. Both scenes may be perceived as direct challenges not only to the cult of classical Russian literature but also to the prevailing Russian state discourse on the inviolability of traditional values.

grozaAlthough Katerina and Kuligin both suffer at the hands of Kalinov’s conservative elite, they represent two very different forms of rebellion. Whereas he is a politically motivated dissenter who protests against the state of modern Russia, she gives very little thought to where she lives. Rather, she is driven almost exclusively by two primal emotions: first her passion for Boris, and later her guilt over the affair. In this regard, as Konstantinopol’skii himself has pointed out, Dobroliubov’s description of Katerina as a “ray of light in a dark kingdom” (Dobroliubov 1979) is unwarranted. Far from being a beacon of progressivism, she is mostly concerned with the personal ramifications of crossing the boundary of what her mother-in-law and Russian society deem morally acceptable (Festival Kinotavr 2019). Given his opinion of Katerina’s character, it is probably no coincidence that Konstantinopol’skii cast Liubov’ Aksenova in the role. The actress made her name in Mikhail Segal’s Short Stories (Rasskazy 2012), in which she played a naïve and ignorant girl who knows nothing of Russian cultural history yet forms a perfect sexual partnership with her intellectual boyfriend (Lipovetsky 2019). In that movie, her character admits: “I don’t know much, but you can fuck me” (Nemchenko 2019). In The Thunderstorm, the same actress uses almost identical intonation as she begs another screen lover—Boris—to “take me right here, one last time, fuck me.”

In the film, as in the play, Katerina’s despair and sense of shame eventually drive her to suicide. However, once again, Konstantinopol’skii is not entirely faithful to his source material, because Kuligin—who has been the key eyewitness to Katerina’s mistreatment at the hands of both her mother-in-law and Russian society—is abducted by aliens, whereas in the play he remains in Kalinov as a rare voice of dissent against the conservative elite. Therefore, in Konstantinopol’skii’s adaptation, both of the people who dared to challenge the status quo—one by following her heart and the other by fighting against injustice and hypocrisy because he refused to live in lies (Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s moral imperative: “zhit’ ne po lzhi”)—are ultimately eradicated. The message is clear: contemporary Russia is even worse than it was in Ostrovskii’s day. It is still a place where the authorities will suppress individuality, but now every progressive voice is silenced too.

Oshank Hashemi
University of Ghent


Notes

1] As Daria Ezerova (2019) points out, The Thunderstorm is also stylistically similar to Down House

2] Konstantinopol’skii uses a similar technique for the scenes in which Katerina dreams of Boris and when they appear on screen together.

 

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Works Cited

Borislavov, Rad. 2013. “Vladimir Mirzoev: Boris Godunov (2011).” KinoKultura 39.

Dobroliubov, N.A. 1979 [1860]. “Luch sveta v temnom tsarstve.” In Dobroliubov,  Literaturnaia kritika, 191–272. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura. 

Ezerova, Daria. 2019. “Kinotavr Turns Thirty: Surprises, Growing Pains, and Adulteries.” KinoKultura 65.

Festival Kinotavr. 2019. “Press-konferentsiia: Groza, Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii.”

Kas’ianova, Ol’ga. 2019 [2018]. “Dom, kotoryi postroil sviat. Russkii Bes Grigoriia Konstantinopol’skogo.” Iskusstvo kino 11/12.

Lipovetsky, Mark. 2019 [2015]. “Lost in Translation.” In The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader, edited by Rimgaila Salys, 240–248. Boston: Academic Studies Press.

Nemchenko, Liliia. 2019 [2013].  “Tell Me What You Know about Russia?” In The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader, edited by Rimgaila Salys, 249–256. Boston: Academic Studies Press.

Os’minkin, Roman. 2020. “Perpetuum mobile—‘Groza’ Grigoriia Konstantinopol’skogo.” Seans 21 May.

Petrik, Gordej. 2019. “Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: ‘Ia govoriu, chto devianostye ne zakonchilis’—no oni i ne zakonchilis’.’” Seans 29 January.

Solomatin, Pavel. 2019. “Retsenziia na fil’m ‘Groza’ Grigoriia Konstantinopol’skogo: Razbudite Ostrovskogo cherez sto let i sprosite, ostalsia li domostroi v Rossii.” Intermedia 16 June.

Vernitski, Anat. 2005. “Post-Soviet Film Adaptations of the Russian Classics: Tradition and Innovation.” In Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900–2001: Screening the Word, edited by Stephen Hutchings and Anat Vernitski, 156–166. London: Routledge.


The Thunderstorm, Russia, 2019
Color, 79 minutes
Director: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Screenplay: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, Aleksandr Ostrovskii
Music: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, Ivan Makarevich
Editing: Anna Matskova
Cinematography: Anatolii Simchenko
Costume Design: Natal’ia Turovnikova, Dmitrii Ivlev, Polina Sokolova
Cast: Liubov’ Aksenova, Viktoria Tolstoganova, Ivan Makarevich, Maria Shalaeva, Alisa Khazanova, Aleksei Makarov, Aleksander Kuznetsov, Sergei Gorodnichii, Vasilii Butkevich, Dar’ia Kashirina, Stasia Venkova
Producers: Aleksander Plotnikov, Evgenii Nikishov, Valerii Fedorovich
Production: Look Film

Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: The Thunderstorm (Groza, 2019)

reviewed by Oshank Hashemi © 2021

Updated: 2021