THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME (Kira Muratova, 1989)

Not even glasnost in the Time of Gorbachev would spare Astenicheskiy sindrom from state censorship and suppression, ostensibly—I am not entirely convinced—for excessive nudity and other sexual detail, in the Soviet Union’s waning days. Co-written (along with Aleksandr Chernykh and Sergei Popov) by Romanian-born Kira Muratova, who also directed (Special Jury Prize, Berlin), here is one of cinema’s most lacerating social satires. Full of seemingly artless Three Stooges-type slapstick comedy, especially in the zany, frequently hilarious first part, the film brilliantly reflects Soviet unease over the relaxation of authoritarianism, to which in one form or another the Russian personality and condition had historically been wedded. Lest we miss the point, at his funeral Natasha’s spouse is made up and shot to resemble, all laid out, Josef Stalin; afterwards, Natasha is a basket-case, given to sudden outbursts of punching and kicking anyone in her way: a nostalgic attempt to restore the certainty and stability of authority in Soviet life that perestroika has (for the time being) shelved. Cruelty toward cats—cat-lovers, brace yourselves—is another form that such society-wide loss and nostalgia takes; people are becoming tyrannical themselves in order to fill the void. The repetitiveness of depressing, hostile activity reminded me of Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou—except that there is no “mad love” in Muratova’s film, only empty mad stress and defeatism. The Soviet Union, Muratova astutely opines, is a nation with a past but no discernible future.
     The film’s first part, which revolves around Natasha, comes to an abrupt and absurd conclusion; the camera withdraws to reveal that we have been watching, along with an audience at a private screening, a film-within-the-film by Muratova. This Vertovian touch of postmodernism pierced my heart with its reminder of the silent-era Soviet avant-garde and Soviet optimism regarding the future. At this point the import of the opening funeral fully kicks in.
     Among those at the screening is the protagonist of the film’s second and concluding part: school teacher Nikolai. Narcoleptic, Nikolai is asleep; under the influence of the Soviet mirage, he has missed the film-within-the-film or, perhaps, dreamt it. His pupils, at least, are awake in class, but so indolent and indifferent that they also represent a cancellation of the Soviet future. A montage of unattractively nude figures in the flesh—people (both men and women), not pictures—achieves in the second part a withering apotheosis of the new freedoms and of the Soviet loss as to what to do with them. Where do we go from here?
     From start to finish, this is a marvelous movie.

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