This affecting chronicle of a Siberian village schoolteacher nearly begins and ends with a dance. Varvara Vasilievna—“Varenka”—is herself young at the film’s first ball in Tsarist St. Petersburg, poised to begin her adult life. In 1941 there is another dance, of her own students, as she watches, both moved by the present and haunted by the past, which by this time has included the political imprisonment of her lover, their wedding, and his death in 1914. In between, the village has figured prominently in two ways: its life has been persistent and enduring; Russian history’s recent tumultuous changes, including revolution and world war, have impinged even on so remote an outpost as this. After the Second World War, Varenka, now principal, is proclaimed a hero, her teaching of students a national service that helped “the Motherland” to victory. She herself is surprised by this news, which she hears on the radio—a reminder of Soviet bureaucracy’s difficult attempt to grapple with so vast and diverse a nation as it ruled.
The film is a famous one: written by Mariya Smirnova and directed by Mark Donskoi, Selskaya uchitelnitsa. Donskoi had made the beloved Gorky trilogy (1938-39) and The Rainbow (1944); but Donskoi’s first postwar film is not in their league. This sort of thing, which inevitably has the aging teacher reuniting sentimentally, briefly, with grown versions of former students, cannot help being anecdotal, soft, even diffuse. Donskoi’s film falls short, one must add, of Keisuke Kinoshita’s future immemorial Twenty-Four Eyes (1954).
But two things strongly commend it: Vera Maretskaya’s gracious lead performance; Sergei Urusevsky’s shimmering black-and-white cinematography, gorgeous amidst Nature and indoors leaning hauntingly on Donskoi’s recurrent motif of education’s shafts of light striking the aspiring minds and optimistic hearts of Russian youngsters.
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