Issue 24 (2009)

Sergei Mokritskii:  Four Ages of Love (Chetyre vozrasta liubvi, 2008)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2009

fouragesFour Ages of Love, the directorial debut of cinematographer Sergei Mokritskii, consists of an animated introductory sequence followed by four loosely connected allegories of love. As scripted by Aleksei Golovchenko, the four tales, subtitled autumn, winter, spring and summer, look at love among the young, the middle-aged and the old. Although the individual stories mostly illustrate the obstacles to love and the pathological effects of its absence, in the final analysis, the film is really about love’s power to redeem.

The opening animated sequence sets the stage for the stories that follow: God and an angel have come down to the earth and are arranging marriages. When the angel asks why God is pairing hard workers with lazy good-for-nothings, He explains that if He did otherwise, the drudges would work themselves to death while the loafers would starve. In other words, despite all appearances to the contrary, everything that happens in this world does so in accordance with God’s plan. While the primitive, pseudo-folk style of the animated introduction is very different from the urbane, psychologically intense style in which the rest of the movie is shot, Mokritskii’s approach throughout is to combine irony and sentiment, tenderness and violence, ellipsis and allegory. His characters live in the modern secular world, but they are all looking for miracles: the question becomes, will they recognize a miracle when it occurs? 

fouragesAs many reviewers have suggested, [1] the four stories can be read as free adaptations of Biblical stories, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sara, Rachel and Leah, and the Prodigal Son. The Autumn story (Adam and Eve) is about first love. When the bus they are travelling on is stopped due to a bombed out bridge, Roma (Roman Shmakov) and Sasha (Aleksandra Gontarenko) decide to hike across a beautiful but dangerous no-man’s land. The idyll of two adolescents left to their own devices to discover love in a natural Eden is first threatened by male sexual desire before being shattered by two shocking acts of violence which initiate them into the adult world of violence, pain, and loneliness. Instead of the Edenic apple, Mokritskii uses an orange that the two teens eat as the symbol of the death of innocence and the knowledge of evil. The orange serves as a visual connection to the Winter tale (Abraham and Sara) in which an elderly couple, Vika and Igor, experience the Old Testament miracle of a very late pregnancy. Despite wonderful acting by veterans Liia Akhedzhakova and Igor’ Iasulovich, this tale about love at the end of a long life falters under the weight of its Old Testament model. Are we really witnesses to a modern miracle? Or is it simply a case of a false positive on the pregnancy test? The story breaks off before we learn the answer to that question. One could argue that the real center of this story is the scene of Igor working on a memoir of a career in the Soviet construction bureaucracy, while Vika goes through old photographs and wonders what happened to their love, and their youth. Perhaps the real miracle is that love survives at all. 

fouragesSpring (Rachel and Leah) uses the Biblical story of two women competing for one man as the starting point for a darkly humorous tale of hopelessly lonely Muscovites and the surprising places their desperate need for love can lead them. Rather than experiencing the miraculous transformation of true love, both women are degraded and humiliated and their attempts to reinvent themselves end in abject failure. Again, excellent acting (Elena Morozova and Natalia Surkova) cannot redeem an essentially implausible story, while the obscure biblical prototype doesn’t really add anything to the story. 

fouragesThe most fully developed and thematically explicit of the four tales that make up Four Ages of Love, Summer holds the key to the entire film. The parents of a soldier reported as missing in action have received a letter informing them that their son is actually alive and recuperating from his wounds at a certain Orthodox monastery. The emotionally distraught parents, played by Aleksei Serebriakov and Iuliia Rutberg, travel to the monastery only to find that the brain-damaged young man living there, as the viewer has suspected, is not their son at all and that the author of the letter that brought them here is another mentally unbalanced resident of the monastery, a modern-day holy fool (Vadim Demchog). And yet, after their initial disappointment and anger is spent, they realize that they need this young boy as much as he needs them, and the film ends with the miraculous rebirth of a family. The ways of God are mysterious indeed! 

fouragesThree interconnected stories of love foiled by desire, violence, egoism and routine followed by a vision of the selfless spiritual love that transcends the tragedies of human life confirm that Four Ages of Love is part of the religious revival taking place in Russia and Russian culture today. Its message might be summed up in the following way: everything is connected, everything that happens does so for a reason, and the only true miracle in this world is the power of spiritual love, which alone can cure what ails the rootless and disconnected modern man and woman. While this message will not resonate with all viewers, Mokritskii and his screenwriter Golovchenko have succeeded in creating a striking representation of the modern world as it appears to Christian faith.

fouragesBut non-believers need not despair:  Four Ages of Love is a treat for the eyes as well as the spirit. Working with veteran cinematographer Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, Mokritskii brings the outside world to glorious life in all the four seasons: the browns and yellow fields of autumn, a snow-covered cemetery in winter, the moist greenery of spring, and the golden sunlight and azure skies of summer. Through the judicious use of hand-held cameras, point of view shots, crane shots, and horizontal pans, the director adds variety and expression to the image, while also reinforcing his message. Nevertheless, it must be admitted, the direction doesn’t always rise above the banal: for example, agitation is conveyed by an unsteady handheld camera, while the victory of spiritual love at the movie’s conclusion (i.e., Summer) is signaled by a shift from the horizontal to the vertical plane, as Mokritskii repeatedly uses crane shots to film the actors from above (“a god’s eye view”) and horizontal pans to reinforce the idea that the true measure and meaning of our actions on the earth comes from above. Despite the handicap of its faith-based screenplay and its sometimes hackneyed direction, Four Ages of Love represents a noteworthy debut by a talented newcomer to the director’s chair.

Anthony Anemone
The New School

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1]See, for example: Larisa Maliukova, “Chetyre vozrasta liubvi v moei kvartire” Novaia gazeta 25 January 2008; Elena Iankovskaia, “Chetyre vozrasta liubvi –vozliubi blizhnego svoego”, ProfiCinema 10 June 2008; “Rasskazy o liubvi”.

Four Ages of Love, Russia 2008
Color, 96 min.
Director: Sergei Mokritskii
Script: Aleksei Golovchenko
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Design Valerii Arkhipov
Costume Design Nadezhda Bogdanova
Sound: Iuliia Egorova
Editing Olga Grinshpun
Cast: Roman Shmakov, Aleksandra Gontarenko, Liia Akhedzhakova, Igor’ Iasulovich, Elena Morozova, Natalia Surkova, Aleksei Serebriakov, Iuliia Rutberg, Vadim Demchog
Producer: Ul’iana Savel’eva, Natalia Mokritskaia
Production: Film Company “New People” (Novye liudi), with participation of the Film Company “Twin” and financial support from the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography

Sergei Mokritskii:  Four Ages of Love (Chetyre vozrasta liubvi, 2008)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09