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Stanislav Govorukhin: Bless the Woman (Blagoslovite zhenshchinu) (2003)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2004

 

Bless the Woman is veteran director (and State Duma deputy) Stanislav Govorukhin’s first feature since 1999’s Sharpshooter of the Voroshilov Regiment. Like much of his output since the 1960s, Govorukhin’s latest film is an impeccably professional example of genre cinema, in this case melodrama. He demonstrated his command of screen genres as far back as 1966, with the action-adventure film Vertical, and subsequently showed prowess working within such other cinematic templates as the crime-drama (The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, 1979) and even the rape-revenge film (Sharpshooter). Bless the Woman also shows Govorukhin’s continuing penchant for using literary source material; the film is based on I. Grekova’s novel The Hotel Manager, and follows the director’s earlier adaptations of such varied works as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1987), Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (1981), and Robinson Crusoe (1972).

The plot of Bless the Woman is spread over an eventful span of Soviet history: 1935-1957. Along with art director Valentin Gidulianov and costume designer Regina Khomskaia, Govorukhin has convincingly recreated the physical and visual minutiae of 1930s-1950s Soviet life. In its detailed attention to the nation’s past, the film can thus also be placed beside Govorukhin’s trilogy of historical documentaries: This is No Way to Live, 1990; The Russia That We Lost, 1992; and The Great Criminal Revolution, 1994.

Unlike those highly politicised film-exposés, however, Bless the Woman’s primary representational allegiances are aesthetic: to screen melodrama. The narrative, and the camera, are focused throughout on the heroine, Verochka, beginning with the opening shots of her emerging Venus-like from the sea foam. The Russian word for Venus, in fact – Venera – is evoked by the character’s own given name, Vera, which means "faith." The resulting associative links with both iconic female sensuality (Venera) and the more abstract value of higher belief (vera) indicate just what sort of Womanhood Verochka personifies. Govorukhin’s vision of the Feminine Ideal is not a particularly original one, but he does manage to combine the erotic and the sacred in interesting ways, for example a slow, close-up pan down Verochka’s bare torso while she showers that stops at her abdomen as she realizes that she is pregnant. That Govorukhin is centrally concerned here with the experience and significance of being female, specifically a Russian female of the 20th century, is also confirmed by the film’s title and dedication: "To our mothers and grandmothers."

The film is structured as a series of episodes in Vera’s life, separated by intertitles indicating the date. When we first meet her, in 1935, Verochka is a 17-year old living with her mother, brother, and sister in a small seaside village. One morning, fresh from her daily swim, she meets Larichev, a Red Army colonel who is 15, perhaps 20 years her senior. After their second meeting on the beach, he informs her he will return in two weeks in order to take her away and marry her. Thus begins a pattern of military itinerancy and strict familial command structure that will define Verochka’s married life. In many ways, she is in the tradition of the long-suffering heroines of Russian literature and Soviet film, heroines defined primarily by a cluster of virtues such as obedience and loyalty to men, infinite patience, and unquestioning self-sacrifice.

As they set up the first of several army-post homes, Larichev lays down the law for Verochka, as if lecturing new draftees. As the man, he says, he has certain rights: to come home to dinner on the table and an obedient wife who is always "washed, fresh, and cheerful." When Vera responds by asking what her rights as a woman are, he tells her that she has "one right: to be loved." This verbal box of candy from husband to wife cements the familial power structure for good; although she clearly suffers from her austere, subordinate life (as testified by the tears she sheds every ten minutes or so), Verochka never again questions anything her husband says or does, even when he forces her to have an abortion because military posts are "no place for children." And when a child does temporarily come into their lives unexpectedly – Larichev’s son from his first marriage – he instructs Vera only to feed, clothe, and educate the boy, and scolds her for excessive affectionateness when he sees her kissing the boy goodnight.

Most of the dates announced in the intertitles coincide with historical events: 1938, June 1941, May 1945, October 1957. Yet history in the film, perhaps befitting its genre, provides a mere background to Verochka’s emotional life. The one exception to this is also the main exception to the narrative’s otherwise unrelenting focus on the heroine. In 1938, a division commander (played by Govorukhin himself) confides in Larichev that he is appalled by the ongoing Stalinist purges of the Red Army command structure. Larichev warns his mentor that he has no choice but to report him, but the commander shoots himself that night, saving the NKVD the trouble. This somewhat anomalous episode has no apparent effect on Verochka’s or Larichev’s inner lives or biographies, and stands out as an anomalous departure from the film’s otherwise disciplined focus on it’s heroine’s emotional world and life trajectory.

That trajectory eventually leads back to where it began: the seaside village where Larichev found Verochka, to which they return after the war. After a few years there, her husband dies of an unnamed disease, and the penultimate segment of the film is dominated almost entirely by the female characters: Verochka’s mother (Irina Kupchenko), her best friend Masha (Ol'ga Berezkina), Masha’s teenage daughter, and an eccentric, aging actress (Inna Churikova). The women set up house together and function not only as a family, but as a mutual support group.

Yet much like Katia Tikhomirova, the heroine of Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (1979)—whom we also follow over the course of two decades, incidentally—Verochka remains an incomplete, melancholy figure without the love and guiding, stable presence of a man. And unlike another iconic Soviet film heroine, Veronika from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes Are Flying (1957), Vera has never once stepped off the path of feminine virtue, even while her husband was at war for years on end, so she can be given another chance at love and happiness. The appearance of her second Prince Charming at the very end of the film—an aged naval officer whose gentlemanly manners and erudition are represented as both superior to Larichev’s military gruffness and a reflection of the changed social context of the post-Stalinist Thaw—amounts to a kind of reward for Vera’s unflagging loyalty, modesty, and perseverance over the previous 22 years. Ultimately, then, the titular entreaty to "bless the woman" is addressed to that segment of the audience who represent the most important "blessing" a woman can receive according to the logic of Govorukhin’s film: men.

Whether for its implicit message regarding gender relations, or its optimism and nostalgia, Bless the Woman apparently represents the type of filmmaking the Putin government would like to encourage. Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi attended the August 2003 Moscow premiere (on Aug. 27, Russian Cinema Day, no less), and read a congratulatory telegram from the president himself. The film enjoyed more robust distribution than the vast majority of domestic films: 90 prints, 25 of which were earmarked for use in Moscow movie theaters.

Благословите женщину 

Russia, 2003. 114 min. Color.

Directed by Stanislav Govorukhin

Written by Stanislav Govorukhin and Vladimir Valutskii, 

    based on the novel Khoziaika gostinitsy [The Hotel Manager] by I. Grekova.

Camera: Lomer Akhvlediani

Art Direction: Valentin Gidulianov

Costumes: Regina Khomskaia

Starring: Svetlana Khodchenkova, Aleksandr Baluev, Irina Kupchenko, Inna Churikova, Ol'ga Berezkina, Aleksandr Mikhailov.

Production: Ekaterina Maskina, Mosfil'm.


Stanislav Govorukhin: Bless the Woman (Blagoslovite zhenshchinu) (2003)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2004

8/03/04