An actress in tsarist Russian cinema, Olga Preobrazhenskaya turned to directing in the new Soviet Union; Babi riazanskie, her fourth film, is her most enduring piece of work. Highly plotted, it is a trivial melodrama, set a few years before the revolution, that at the last, post-revolution, slides into a momentous feminist message.
One of its two major narrative components finds Anna, a peasant girl and orphan (shades of D.W. Griffith!), in love with a boy, Ivan, whose father also has an eye for her. When his son, who by this time is married to Anna, leaves home to fight in the First World War, the farmer rapes his daughter-in-law, who commits suicide upon her husband’s return and rejection of her after seeing her illegitimate child. The other narrative component involves Ivan’s sister. Ironically, the shame that destroys Anna humanizes—redeems—her father-in-law, and the overwhelming closing shot finds Anna’s sister-in-law, the baby in her arms, advancing proudly into the Soviet future.
Those who insist that Preobrazhenskaya eschews propaganda in it plainly view this film with eyes different than mine; but the film is all the better for its patriotism and propaganda. It is, of course, unfortunate for the Soviet Union that its record of gender equality did not fulfill the thrilling hopefulness that Babi riazanskie conclusively expresses.
On the other hand, the film is different from other Soviet silents on another score: while farmwork is extensively shown, no nobility is attached to it. Work is simply work in this film. The fact that Anna’s childbirth isn’t at all depicted may also be related to this unusual matter-of-factness.
The final tragic scenes, including Anna’s spectacular drowning, which interrupt a host of celebratory outdoor activities on a Christian holiday, demonstrate Preobrazhenskaya’s bravura skill at editing. But perhaps my favorite cut occurs almost at the outset. The film opens, in the spring of 1914, with a lyrical shot of birds sparkling in a tree. We are introduced to Anna when she steps outdoors. Two quick, poignant shots show the bird-filled tree again and Anna’s delighted reaction. Lovely girl; lovely filmmaking.
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