Some characters can see no future for themselves; Ivan Voinitsky—Uncle Vanya (Innokenti Smoktunovsky, superb)—feels that even his meager present is being stripped away. For years he has managed his sister’s country estate, where he lives with their mother and his niece, Sonya. Dutifully he has sent to his sister and her spouse, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov, the lion’s share of proceeds from the farm. Now that his first wife has died, he has retired from teaching and has taken a new, young wife, self-centered Aleksandr visits, announces his intention of selling the estate, in effect evicting his former brother-in-law. Helping also to put a manhood-sized pistol in Ivan’s hand is the fact that he, too, has fallen in love with Yelena, Aleksandra’s wife.
Uncle Vanya, originally staged in 1899 by the Moscow Art Theater’s Konstantin Stanislavski, is one of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s enduring masterpieces. Andrei Konchalovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov’s brother, has made mostly tepid films. However, the Chekhov text here lifts him up, freeing him to make his best film, a study of fastidious sumptuousness in nearly invisible because so gradual decay. At the beginning the camera drifts into the house and winds about, discovering anticipitatorily hauntingly empty rooms until at last lighting upon a lone resident and then others; at the close, the camera similarly withdraws, making of Sonya’s spectacular speech (“ . . . We shall rest”) an anticipatorily hauntingly disembodied voice. Throughout the film, black and white yields to color, which yields to black and white, and so forth, creating (for us) another structure of anticipation. Finally, the film drifts into old-photography sepia and, at the very end, a single aerial shot of a frozen-cold Russia: the symbolical gravesite of the often rollicking comedy we have witnessed, which included broad, dire, absurdist strokes of slapstick.
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