The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009
Once Upon a Time in the Provinces
[Однажды в провинции]

Russia, 2008
Color, 100 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Katia Shagalova
Screenplay: Katia Shagalova
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin
Set Design: Denis Bauer
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Iuliia Peresil'd, El'vira Bolgova, Aleksandr Golubev, Nataliia Soldatova, Liubov' Tolkalina, Aidys Shoigu, Leonid Bichevin, Aleksandr Skotnikov, Sakhat Dursunov, Viktoriia Poltorak, Aleksei Poluian
Producers: Sergei Danielian, Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Central Partnership, Tan-Film, with financial support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

While the title of this film might lead one to expect a happy, fairy-tale romp through the more scenic parts of provincial Russia, Once Upon a Time in the Provinces, Katia Shagalova’s second feature film, is anything but. Nastia (Iuliia Peresil'd), a television actress whose career has abruptly ended, comes to stay with her sister Vera (El'vira Bolgova) in a grubby factory town. Vera is not exactly pleased to see Nastia, who was instrumental in having Kolia (Aleksandr Golubev), Vera’s husband, sent to a combat zone in Chechnia where he suffered a head trauma. Despite two surgeries, Kolia is still not well and, furthermore, has cooled toward Vera, which may or may not motivate his beating her. Neither Vera nor Kolia are eager to accept Nastia into their home, but differences are temporarily laid aside because, after all, family is family.

Life in the fictional town of Uletova (filmed in the Moscow suburb of Podol'sk) follows a sleepy course. Kolia and his three buddies who served together in Chechnia spend their days refitting stolen cars, fighting with skinheads, urinating on things, and drinking, while the women cook, clean, and generally cater to the men. At night, they gather in the square outside and drink. The only character to have any kind of regular job is Lena (Liubov' Tolkalina), the local police chief, who has her hands full with her delinquent teenage daughter in addition to her affair with Kolia.

As Nastia settles into her new life, Shagalova gradually uncovers the complex matrix of familial and erotic relationships connecting the main characters, presumably a microcosm of the entire town. All anybody wants is love, but dysfunction reigns. While Kolia has an affair with Lena, Vera still worships him and is worshiped in her turn by Kolia’s friend Kim (Aidys Shoigu), albeit from afar. Nastia becomes involved with Misha (Leonid Bichevin), also called Che in recognition of his Cuban father. Even this seemingly normal relationship is tainted by the revelation that the root of Che’s fascination with Nastia stems from his obsession with his mother. The only stable bonds remaining are between Kolia and his buddies and, interestingly, between Iasir (Sakhat Dursunov) and his wife (Viktoriia Poltorak)—recent immigrants from the Caucasus. The town itself is remarkably diverse ethnically, prompting some critics to remark cynically that all the Russians with means have moved away.

If family, defined either by blood or metaphorically, forms one pole of the film, the idea of freedom forms another. On the night of Nastia’s arrival, Che performs the song “I’m Free” (Ia svoboden) by Kipelov as his audience sways and waves lighters, giving voice to a collective longing for a different life. Shortly thereafter, Shagalova introduces a phrase that runs throughout the film: “The nightmare is over—a new life has begun.” Kolia and his friends have returned from the nightmare of war into a “new life,” but the nightmare has continued. Kim advises Kolia to “wake up”—here synonymous with leaving the provinces or at least changing one’s life, which, as the film ultimately makes clear, is not a realizable option. The only actually “free” character is Horse (Aleksei Poluian)—a crazy old man.

The quality of timelessness contributes to the sense of stagnation that permeates the town: while day follows day, nothing ever changes and there are no markers to indicate how much time is actually passing. Nastia’s arrival in (and even exit from) Uletova is, thus, unremarkable in any way.

Russian critics have been reluctant to categorize Once Upon a Time in the Provinces as a melodrama, which is somewhat strange given that the film so closely follows generic conventions: unhappy scenario remedied by love, followed by tragedy and death. However, the title offers a reading of the film as an inverted folk tale, one in which Nastia’s Prince Che rescues her from certain evil and drives her away to the main road (and then probably Moscow) only to destroy both of them.

Once Upon a Time in the Provinces was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at the 2008 Moscow International Film Festival, but critics have been harsh. Most of the objections stem from the perception that the portrayal of the Russian provinces is stereotypical and too negative, while others found the ending overly dramatic and unconvincing. Shagalova’s sophomore effort is more complex than has previously been credited to her and does not deserve such a hasty dismissal.

Katia Shagalova

Katia Aleksandrovna Shagalova, daughter of scriptwriter and director Aleksandr Mindadze, was born in Moscow in 1976. In 1997, she graduated with a degree in screenwriting from the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK), followed in 2002 by a degree in directing from the Russian Academy of Theater Art (GITIS). In addition to directing theater productions in Moscow and Europe, she made her directorial debut in film in 2005.

Filmography:

2008 Once Upon a Time in the Provinces
2005 Pavlov’s Dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

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