New Films 






Petr Todorovsky: Life is Filled with Wonders (Zhizn zabavamy polna) (2003)

reviewed by Irina Makoveeva©2004


Petr Todorovskii’s recent film Life Is Filled With Wonders (2002) proves, once again, his penchant for tragicomedy. In one of his interviews, Todorovskii recalls his military stint as the best years of his life (he was only twenty years old when WWII ended). The paradoxical nature of such a confession reflects on the essence of his cinema, which depicts the complexity of human emotion independent of historical constraints. In the span of his life, Todorovskii has examined similar stories of hatred and love, betrayal and loyalty, loss and happiness. In the microcosms he constructs, binary opposites are naturally intertwined into the fabric of life, a life full of wonders.

During the Soviet era, Todorovskii succeeded in maintaining a sense of inner freedom in his works (within the limits of what was permissible, of course) and, in this respect, his post-Soviet films do not diverge from his earlier works. On the basis of such films as Loyalty (1965), The Magician (1967), An Urban Romance (1970), Mechanic Gavrilov’s Beloved (1981), War-Time Romance (1983), On the Main Street With an Orchestra (1986), Intergirl (1989), Encore, Again Encore! (1992), What a Wonderful Game (1995), and Retro à trois (1998) he achieved critical acclaim as a director who entertains his audience by telling plausible stories about realistic characters in concrete situations, and who explores the eternal human passions that drive their existence.

In 1949, on his second try, Todorovskii was accepted into the workshop of Boris Volchek at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK). As a certified cameraman, he worked with Marlen Khutsiev on Spring on Zarechnaia Street (1956) and Two Fedors (1958), and later in his career he played one of the main roles in Khutsiev’s WWII film It Was the Month of May (1970). In the course of his long artistic biography, Todorovskii has worked as scriptwriter, composer, and performer of his own songs. Life Is Filled With Wonders showcases the diversity of his talent.

With its action centered on five families living in a communal apartment in a small town not far from Moscow, Life Is Filled With Wonders intertwines multiple plots into a quintessential panorama of modern life. Through a cross-section of contemporary society, the film presents a wide range of complex problems and relationships. Conflicts ripen between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, parents (or their surrogates) and children. Though limited shared space seems to exacerbate such conflicts, their solution depends, paradoxically, on everyone’s remaining within the spatial boundaries of the kommunalka. Todorovskii posits communal existence as the sole means of surviving the chaos "outside."

Five doors and a central hall―which functions as a stage allowing for the passions played out by the individuals to be observed by the neighbors―form the film’s basic set. The exposure of intimate secrets in the hall (that is, in a seemingly public, but essentially domestic space) provides a cathartic effect; for example, when the "ideal" couple, Edik (Roman Madianov) and Lara (Nelli Nevedina), temporarily reconcile after their operatic fight about the husband’s adultery, both the fight and the reconciliation are performed in the presence of neighbors. As the story unfolds, the characters find themselves separated from the external world. In the face of revolt (to a certain extent, the events in the street are reminiscent of the fall of 1993), they obtain security, patriarchal harmony, and sobornost' within their commune.

However, the residents’ gradual exclusion from the world at large begins earlier, when they lose their identities as professionals: Vera (Irina Rozanova), a university graduate, has to work at the train station as a radio announcer; Viktor (Andrei Panin) tutors the daughter of New Russians because the research institute where he used to work lacks funds to support its employees financially. The rupture between the past and the present begets the opposition between "us" (the inner circle) and "them" (the world outside). While the spatial layout of the rooms reveals the circular structure of the "inner circle" on the visual level, the centripetal forces that organize the story and lead the characters to the core of a "correct" existence (nuclear family) fulfill a similar function on the level of narration. The massive locks placed on the entrance door on the day of the revolt close the circle.

The various characters’ outings inevitably bring them closer to their inner selves, to one another, and to the apartment: Viktor’s visits to the Tret'iakov Gallery reestablish connections with Russia’s past and emphasize the inner circle’s membership in this cultural legacy; his decision to leave the apartment and to face reality allows him to restore his self-esteem and to model himself as a potential leader of the commune; Lira’s (Larisa Udovichenko) trip to the Australian Embassy ends in a fiasco, thereby forcing her to stay with her husband; Vera’s romance is cut short by her beloved’s murder, which eliminates the distance between her and her single neighbor Viktor; Edik’s infidelity deprives the couple of its "mythic" perfection, but simultaneously strengthens the marriage. Within the film’s universe, the "old" is flamboyantly represented in shots (by cameraman Vladimir Shevtsik) that mirror the idyllic landscapes of an Old Russian province. In contrast to Moscow, the embodiment of the outer new world, the utopian and intelligentsia-identified periphery signals the potential for a future national restoration.

The film concludes with Todorovskii’s rendition of his own song―a kind of musical narration that may be read as the filmmaker’s direct address to his audience, conveying his “recipe” for today’s fragile, unstable existence. The content of the song carries the extremely simple notion of the need for love ("somebody must love someone" [nuzhno chtoby kto-to kogo-to liubil]). Repeated by Victor, the film’s protagonist, several times throughout the film, this line explicitly emphasizes the message. However, the didactic tone of the lyrics (nuzhno) transforms an observation into instruction (a guide to action), urging an interpretation the film as an allegory. "Meaningful" names likewise points to the film’s allegorical pretensions: the two protagonists, Vera (faith) and Viktor (victor), prepare viewers for an optimistic outcome; Gingerbread (Prianik), the Russian immigrant, emphasizes the level of his desirability, as he is Lira’s only escape from her miserable life.

No matter how appalling (for example, the drunk Slavophile who attacks Viktor in the park) or appealing (for example, the character of Sergei [Vladimir Simonov], the object of Vera’s romantic obsession) the manifestations of external life, the film eliminates links to the hostile center according to the pattern of Noah’s Ark. In order to survive, the communal apartment’s inhabitants should, first, reunite in the face of imminent external disaster, and, second, recombine to form couples. Todorovskii’s film forcefully returns his characters to their biblical origins. The concluding shots of the film reintroduce the couples seated in front of a huge fountain in a park, an integral part of the Soviet urban landscape, its spurts evoking both the worldwide flood that Noah’s Ark successfully survived and the life-giving moisture of a restored Garden of Eden.

The only outsider included in the circle of "us" is Viktor’s pupil, the female offspring of some New Russians. "Infected" by her mentor and paternal substitute (her tears over the pages of Evgenii Onegin explicitly demonstrate the success of her [re]-education), the girl is allowed into the circle of the chosen. At the same time, her presence within the commune bridges the gap between Russia’s old and new generations of the Russian nation. At the beginning of the film, the camera reinforces this unity in a close-up of the mentor and the pupil holding hands in the Tret'iakov Gallery, the repository of indispensable and easily identifiable Russian cultural treasures. Life Is Filled With Wonders, thus, argues for the nuclear family as a necessary condition for salvation, even as it undermines the sufficiency of a separate family unit as a prerequisite for a national renaissance.

Irina Makoveeva, University of Pittsburgh

Life is Filled With Wonders (Russia, 2002)

Color, 96 minutes

Director: Petr Todorovskii

Script: Petr Todorovskii

Camera: Vladimir Shevtsik

Art Direction: Vladimir Kirs

Composer: Petr Todorovskii

Costumes: Pavel Kaplevich, Tat'iana Kol'tsova

Cast: Irina Rozanova, Vladimir Simonov, Larisa Udovichenko, Iurii Kuznetsov, Nelli Nevedina, Roman Madianov, Liudmila Arinina, Vladimir Kashpur, Andrei Panin, Marina Mogilevskaia, Mariia Krasikova

Producer: Mira Todorovskaia, Mirabel'-Fil'm

Petr Todorovsky: Life is Filled with Wonders (Zhizn zabavamy polna) (2003)

reviewed by Irina Makoveeva©2004