This letter is part of "Behind the Celluloid Curtain," a series of correspondences between Scout Tafoya and Veronika Ferdman on the topic of Soviet cinema, with each series organized around a theme. This particular series focuses on love in a time of discontent.
Those Soviets are really unlucky in love, aren’t they? At any period of time and age—from the star-crossed adult lovers of the 1800s of The Lady with the Dog to the summer campers in their early to mid-teens in One Hundred Days After Childhood (for which director Sergei Solovyov won the Silver Bear fat the Berlinale in 1975)—love has never saved anyone, or cleared the cobwebs out of eyes and minds. Not when there are such big pressures—whether the general malaise brought on by social misalignment of July Rain and Lady with the Dog, or the struggle to find the value and meaning in one’s life of You and I, that value is never found in another person. Interesting, that in these four films (which by all accounts were conscious responses to and against the evolving and dispiriting gurgles of the Socialist landscape of the time) neither Iosif Kheifits, Marlen Khutsiev, Larisa Sheptiko, nor Solovyov allow their protagonists' grasps and gasps at love to stand as a cure-all. Being in love is not a way of being that is complete unto itself. To me, there’s something decidedly Soviet in that clarity of sight in films that depend so much on romance to shape their narrative but do not deceive the characters or the audience into thinking that this is a balm to treat all woes. The pressures of being a member of society (even if the teens of One Hundred Days After Childhood are still too young to feel the full weight of those pressures) are heavy and that burden can at best be momentarily lifted by love, but even that momentary respite is paid for later, the burden getting heavier as the beloved object cannot be yours/is not enough/turns cold.
Perhaps I’m just a little grumpy and am looking at these films through embittered glasses, but I don’t think so. You asked in your previous letter what cinematic paradise would look like for me. What a delightful and well-timed question, as my answer is simple: One Hundred Days After Childhood. Now, I do not believe in there only being one possible cinematic paradise, and if I were to assemble a film that stuffed in all of the things that I hold most dear in cinema it would probably be a gaudy affair bursting with neon lights reflecting off water, nighttime road trips set to 80s pop songs, rain and birch trees, Nicolas Cage… So, let’s just say that One Hundred Days After Childhood is an incarnation of my idea of a cinematic paradise—one that is resplendent with the greens of grass and trees in summer. I think quite a few people would say that red is the most cinematic color. And not that we need to create such silly hierarchies, but allow me this frivolity: it’s really green. Social realist (and not) Soviet cinema frequently (proudly) emphasizes the landscape with its forests and fields where hale men and women alike toil at the land, has written a love letter to that color across countless frames of celluloid. The greens—I’m not even sure how to properly describe the nuances in tone and suggested texture—are richer, deeper, fresher. The light is different; it’s both softer and lighter, less warm and heavy than the light we in have in the United States.
Mitya (Boris Tokarev) and Sonya (Irina Malysheva), two of the campers, dance in a field in the minutes before all the sunlight is gone. Starting with a wide angle, each subsequent cut closes down the field of vision until their bodies become abstracted: part of a face, Sonya's hand waving to the rhythm of the invisible music that only we can hear on the soundtrack, but not the two of them. No matter how closed down the space becomes we still see the backdrop of the landscape: the gray-green of the grass and the darker green of the shrubs. A moment out of time that is a green gift.
One Hundred Days After Childhood's candidacy for cinematic paradise comes not only from its formal qualities, but its narrative and tonal ones as well. It has that same warmth and empathy to young adults that beats in François Truffaut’s work. Unfurling over the summer months at a youth camp where a love square, one that at the end of the day is too somber to be jovially Shakespearean in its arrangement, its forms. If I may: Lena (Tatyana Drubich who would go on to appear in more of Solovyov's films, most notably in his formally and politically radical Black Rose is an Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose is an Emblem of Love) loves Gleb (Yuri Agilin), who loves himself but also loves Lena, but not passionately or maddeningly. Mitya loves Lena too. And Sonya loves Mitya. It is unlikely that at some point in our lives we have not found ourselves in the position of at least one of these four players. There’s self-assured Gleb who is loved by everyone and has the radiance of someone to whom things come too easily (though this has not dulled him, or attenuated his compassion, just his willingness to make a fool out of himself from being sick with love). And spurned Mitya (who loves passionately and madly and tries to reinvent himself so as to get Lena’s attention). And the waiting Sonya who plays the role of faithful friend and confidant patiently hoping Mitya will finally notice her as more than just a friend. And the by all accounts lucky Lena, who is the luckiest, as she is both lover and beloved—until you remember how painful and uncomfortable it can be to have to rebuff the attentions of someone you consider a friend.
Solovyov, like Truffaut, like Maurice Pialat—like any great chroniclers of childhood before and after him—does not romanticize the romanticism of adolescents, nor does he suture their growing pains. Although so far of the four films we have discussed this one is the least political, I think the conclusion it draws, when thrown into conversation with the other films, creates a murmur of agreement on the topic of love. This film, though full of warmth and humor, ends on a gulp of cold water on a realization that the experiences that occurred that summer are formative, are blueprints for lives to be lived. And love will not get easier with age; luck will always play its part, some will lose, some will win, some will be loved, some will do the loving, and love will never be a panacea.
Until next time,