The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009
Four Ages of Love
[Четыре возраста любви]

Russia, 2008
Color, 95 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Sergei Mokritskii
Screenplay: Aleksei Golovchenko
Cinematography: Alicher Khamidkhodzhaev
Editing: Ol'ga Grinshpun
Sound editor: Iuliia Egorova
Cast: Liia Akhedzhakova, Andrei Bel'zho, Alla Bossart, Vadim Demchog, Aleksandra Gontarenko, Igor' Iasulovich, Igor' Irten'ev, Elena Morozova, Iuliia Rutberg, Aleksei Serebriakov, Roman Shmakov, Natal'ia Surkova.
Producers: Natal'ia Mokritskaia and Ul'iana Savel'eva
Production: Film Company “New People,” Film Company “Twin,” with the state financial support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Sergei Mokritskii’s directorial debut is a portmanteau film consisting of four novellas on the nature of love. The episodic structure of the film, the introductory parable about God’s role in human destiny, and the opening animation sequence evoking Marc Chagall’s flying lovers prepare a viewer for a smart art house melodrama. Like the directors of such contemporary portmanteau classics as Magnolia, Short Cuts, Nine Lives, or Amores Perros, Mokritskii knits together seemingly unrelated stories via larger themes of the search for spiritual authenticity and the meaning of love in a post-religious world. Crucially, Mokritskii creates a palimpsest narrative, in which a quasi-religious parable transpires through the profane mendacity of characters’ everyday existence.

While working in a digital and post-Pulp Fiction age, Mokrtiskii resists the temptations of superficial narrative manipulations and combines playful visual and narrative experimentation with a nineteenth century seriousness of humanist melodramatic temperament. The only time the filmmaker allows himself to enjoy life’s absurdity gleefully á la Tarantino is in the funeral scene in the novella “Winter.” For this carnivalistic episode, Mokritskii invited conceptualist artist Andrei Bel'zho. He delivers a brilliant sotsart performance while praising the deceased Semen Semenovich, as a person who represented the conscience and honor of his department. Bel'zho’s oblique reference to Lenin’s famous dictum, “The Party is the wisdom, honor and conscience of our era,” turns into an absurd epitaph to Soviet cinema itself. After all, the lead male role of the novella “Winter” was written for the late Iurii Nikulin, who incidentally played the character of Semen Semenovich in Leonid Gaidai’s Diamond Arm, the most popular comedy in the history of Soviet cinema.

Depending on their beliefs, education, or desire, viewers can follow the narrative logic of the seasonal cycle announced in the novellas’ titles (“Fall,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer”), or the logic evident in the intertextual links of each short with Judeo-Christian parables: “Fall” with the story of Adam and Eve, “Winter” with the story of Sarah and Abraham, “Spring” with the story of Rachel and Leah, and “Summer” with the story of St. Alexius the God’s man not recognized by his parents. Viewers, however, also have the option of simply enjoying the playful plots of each novella with their false leads, cheated expectations, reversals of traditional gender roles, miraculous coincidences, and paradoxical dénouements.

The first novella sets up viewers’ expectations for a romantic road movie about two teens travelling through a war-torn North-Caucasian republic. Using non-professional actors who preserve their own names as characters, Roman and Sasha, the filmmaker lulls viewers into a complacency of following a neorealistic story of two teens coming of age during their trip through a country traumatized by war. Roman and Sasha perform stereotypical gender roles: he—that of a warrior wannabe (Roman carries a gun) and she―that of a straight “A” athletic beauty. All of a sudden, while fording a river, the characters’ roles reverse dramatically. When they are attacked by a uniformed marauder, Roman immediately falls apart while Sasha doesn’t falter to pull the trigger and kill the looter. The journey of the first novella turns into a story of the loss of innocence. The “Fall” ends next to the spotless white building of a newly rebuilt railroad station, the excessive cleanliness of which, like the silence of the two teenagers next to it, disguises the destruction and butchery that was probably here just recently, before the new building was erected.

The second novella is an homage to sentimental social melodrama with elements of absurdity of the late Soviet era. The seasoned veterans of Soviet stage and screen Liia Akhedzhakova (as Vika) and Igor' Iasulovich (as Igor') put on a brilliant performance as two senior citizens whose feelings for each other faded because they forgot that life itself is a miracle and just go through the motions of their daily routines, a Russian-style Groundhog Day. Because the film opens with a scene in the hospital and the heroes are old, the viewer expects them to rediscover their feelings for the last time before Vika’s death. The filmmaker, however, turns the world of his characters upside down by giving his female protagonist a miraculous ability to give birth despite her advanced age. A story about the winter of love turns into a carnivalistic parable about pregnant death.

The novella “Spring” presents the world as a theater, where characters forget about even a possibility of authenticity and play their clichéd social roles to the best of their ability. In this world, love is a performance disguising the physical world’s essence―aggression and violence. In this world of constant performance, where it is impossible to have an authentic identity, the characters are happy even if they get a chance to masquerade as characters with stable identities and relations. Two women pretend that they compete for the love of the same, non-existent, man in order to get ephemeral excitement from a fantasy about a meaningful relationship. Their frustrated desire eventually descends into violence.

The final novella, “Summer,” is driven by the fool in Christ trickster-hero who challenges the rest of the characters and the viewers to see the entire world as love hidden in plain view. As in the first novella, “Fall,” viewers eventually discover the characters at a river crossing. If, in the first novella, the crossing represented the heroes’ transition from the age of innocence into adulthood, in the last novella the crossing of the river represents the transition from the profane secular world into the sublime world of Christian love. As opposed to the first novella, the characters do not have to ford the river because there is a bridge set up for them and the transition from the world of violence to that of love seems to be easier than ever. However, the characters have a hard time crossing this Rubicon.

Mokritskii debuts as a sophisticated visual storyteller. It is a pleasure to follow the director’s ability to intertwine the multiple layers of the film’s narrative, masterful use of props (oranges as heavenly apples, for example) and colors (watch for the filmmaker’s use of red in the film). The viewer shouldn’t forget, after all, that in Russian the word for “love” rhymes with the word for “blood”: liubov'/krov'. The only frustrating thing about this wonderful film is its disappointing box office—only $60,000 after the first six weeks of release. So what! Even Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office disappointment upon its initial release.

Sergei Mokritskii

Sergei Mokritskii was born in 1961. He graduated from the Department of Cinematography (the workshop of A. Gal'perin) of the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1991. Mokritskii started his career as a cameraman in V. Nozdriukhin-Zabolotny’s film The Flavor of Autumn (1996). He became known for his camera work in Kirill Serebrennikov’s films.

Filmography:

2008 Four Ages of Love

 

 

 

 

 

 

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