Aleksandr Proshkin: Live to Remember (Zhivi i pomni, 2008)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2008

Adapted from the 1974 story by Valentin Rasputin, Live to Remember tells the story of Andrei Gus'kov (Mikhail Evlanov), who deserts from the Red Army in January 1945 returning to his native Siberia. Hiding out in abandoned huts near his home village, only Andrei's wife, Nastena (Dar'ia Moroz), knows of his whereabouts, but is sworn to secrecy. Nastena's loyalty to her fugitive husband inevitably brings her into conflict with the rest of the village, and especially her in-laws Semenovna (Evgeniia Glushenko) and Mikheich (Sergei Makovetskii) with whom she lives.

While there are some powerful acting performances, especially from the incredible unblinking Makovetskii, and from Dar'ia Moroz, who had already made the role her own in the 2006 Moscow Arts theatre stage adaptation of the same story, from a cinematic point of view the film's use of locations is its most striking feature. We see wonderful shots of the frozen, snow-covered, and later, thawing, river, and there is an attempt to make these images form more than just a background to the narrative, but also express the protagonists' bond with the land and with its bleak but breathtaking nature. In Rasputin's story, it is made clear that it is the pull of the land that draws Andrei into desertion and back to his native parts much more than his love for Nastena. The film, however, makes the narrative much more about love, in its most physical guise.

This transformation seems largely the result of the difficulty of rendering the interior life of literary characters in the visual idiom of cinema. Thus the sexual bond between Andrei and Nastena is represented more explicitly than the mores of 1970s Soviet literature permitted: this is in keeping with the way in which Andrei is described as becoming more animalistic, and with it more attractive to Nastena. However, there is also a danger in taking this path: the external, visible facet of human behavior is dwelt on, to the exclusion of attempts to render the inner life, and stages in its evolution. Our first encounter with Andrei, before we see any image of him, is a point-of-view shot of him watching his wife naked in the bathhouse, and his panting breath implies masturbation. From the outset, then, the film shows Andrei as a creature dominated by the physiological dimension of his lusts and urges, especially food and sex, and does little to render his motivations and thought processes.

The central theme of memory, underlined by the title, is largely sacrificed in the film's reinterpretation of Andrei. With the exception of a curious and unnecessarily added epilogue where Andrei wanders through the now deserted village on the twentieth anniversary of Victory Day, this key theme is barely explored. This shift is a problem, as it robs the narrative of much of its poignancy, such as the literary text's depiction of Andrei's homecoming where he is overwhelmed by floods of memories binding him to his home village, but agonized by his fate of being doomed to never again be a part of it. For Andrei, then, victory in the war is hollow, because he can never taste the fruits of post-war life. The film attempts to render his memories with the scene of him burning his uniform. Indeed, the other aspect of the title relates to his decision to desert, as this is born from a growing conviction that since he has survived three whole years of war, he is destined to live, and when he is hospitalized he thinks that he has already done his bit and will be released. None of this is conveyed, to the detriment of the image of Andrei, and the film as a whole. Although it would have become a far more complex narrative entity had Proshkin done so, use of flashbacks in particular for pivotal moments in Andrei's war service would have afforded an insight into the complex motivations behind Andrei's desertion and his attendant sense of unbearable guilt. That manner of construction would have permitted a more sustained exploration of the character's experience of the war, which is here little more than a bit of historical colour. Another attempt to convey Andrei's state of mind and memories is his discovery of a Tsarist-era soldier's belt buckle, which convulses him with anguish. Although the film does mention the character of Andrei's uncle who had fought for the Whites under Admiral Kol'chak; however, only knowledge of the literary text would enable the viewer to realize that his distress at this sight is caused by the fact that his first memory, as a five-year old, is of the uncle's arrest.

Thus, instead of the rich tissue of memories we see Andrei's degeneration into a wolf-like animal, and the director's limited interpretation of the character is particularly problematic for the actor playing the part, Mikhail Evlanov. Thus he deserves little of the blame for this correspondingly one-dimensional performance. Inevitably, he is outshone by Sergei Makovetskii, whose performance as Andrei's father compellingly conveys the bitter torment of sensing Andrei's presence, but being unable to see and talk to him.

There are necessarily many more things in the literary source that can never be realized on the screen: the language, particularly at the beginning of Rasputin's story, contains marked dialect features, and even the narrator's voice uses such turns of phrase, identifying the story teller as a local person. This colloquial narrative manner, designated by the term “skaz” in Russian Formalist literary scholarship and beyond, is very hard to translate on screen. Probably the most successful effort is Sergei Ovcharov's The Left-Handed-Craftsman (Levsha, 1986), which employs a voice-over, coupled with a grotesque visual idiom. Proshkin makes no attempt to generate a filmic equivalent for Rasputin's sometimes florid narrative mode, but he does ensure that the characters speak in distinct local accents, and the dialogue retains many of the specifically Siberian lexical elements, including the memorable term for home-brewed vodka, “ tarasun.”

Proshkin is by no means unfamiliar with the challenges of adapting twentieth-century literary classics: although he is best known internationally for his spaghetti-western style Gulag gunfight film, The Cold Summer of 1953 (Kholodnoe leto 53-ego, 1987), more recently he has been acclaimed for the first Russian screen adaptation of Pasternak's Dr Zhivago (2006), with a running time of 484 minutes which out-epics David Lean. Live and Remember has already won the best director's prize at the Kinotavr film festival in Sochi in June 2008, and is likely to garner Proshkin further plaudits as a director of watchable, but thoughtful films. The director's efforts to adapt the prose of Rasputin for the screen necessarily evoke comparisons with Russian cinema's most significant attempt to do so: Elem Klimov's Farewell (Proshchanie, 1982), based on the author's 1976 story Farewell to Matiora (Proshchanie s Materoi) , which has been described as superior to the book, and which certainly is an impressively haunting work that lives and forces us to remember. The comparison is not a flattering one, however, for Proshkin, but then very few filmmakers are in the same class as Klimov or his wife Larisa Shepit'ko, who had begun Farewell before her untimely death in a road accident.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary, University of London

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Live to Remember, Russia, 2008
Color, 100 min.
Director Aleksandr Proshkin
Scriptwriters Aleksandr Rodionov, Aleksandr Proshkin
Directors of Photography Gennadii Kariuk, Aleksandr Kariuk
Production Design Aleksandr Tolkachev
Composer Roman Dormidoshin
Sound Gennadii Panin
Cast: Dar’ia Moroz, Mikhail Evlanov, Sergei Makovetskii, Anna Mikhalkova, Evgeniia Glushenko, Sergei Bekhterev, Dar’ia Ekamasova, Oleg Kharitonov, Natal’ia Tetenova
Producer Ruben Dishdishian
Production Courier, commissioned by Central Partnership
Distribution CP Classics

Aleksandr Proshkin: Live to Remember (Zhivi i pomni, 2008)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2008

Updated: 30 Sep 08