THE CAPTIVATING STAR OF HAPPINESS (Vladimir Motyl, 1975)

The Captivating Star of Happiness (Zvezda plenitelnogo schastya), by Vladimir Motyl, runs a healthy 2¾ hours. It is excellent and is available on DVD.
     It is about Decembrists—the failed movement among elements of the tsarist military to bring constitutional government to tsarist Russia in 1825. The occasion was the ascendency of a new tsar, Nikolai I. Actually, Motyl’s film focuses on the wives of a few of the military radicals whose lives are spared and on their struggles to follow their incarcerated spouses to Siberia, which meant giving up children, wealth, comforts and their own freedom.
     The film is very beautiful, very sad (of course!), and beautifully acted, especially by Aleksei Batalov, Irina Kupchenko and Innokenti Smoktunovsky, who is nasty in this one.
     The film’s title comes from a Pushkin poem predicting Russia’s awakening from slumber and her trouncing autocracy. Once again we are asked to imagine a higher patriotism than allegiance to the current political order. Perhaps the Soviet Union felt it needed to remind its citizens how despicable tsarism was—and indeed Nikolai I is portrayed as a heartless, soulless villain whose imperatives leave no room for any love of the Motherland.
     I would have preferred that the film include at least one woman who forsakes love in order to carve out an existence of her own. As it is, the cumulative effect is to suggest that the role of women is to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their allegiance to their husbands—a message that also suggests how much Soviet Russia had withdrawn from the dream of gender equality that, in The Old and the New (1929), Eisenstein had proposed as necessary for the Soviet Union to achieve its rightful destiny. Whatever. The film is what it is, and it’s powerful, at times trenchant, and important if for no other reason than it touches on a part of Russian history seldom highlighted in cinema.

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