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MUBI Podcast Expanded: "Yesenia" and Watching Foreign Movies in the USSR

A personal remembrance of what it was like to see international films while growing up in the USSR.
Masha Salazkina
The MUBI Podcast returns with a look at Yesenia, an obscure Mexican melodrama that bizarrely became the biggest box office hit in the history of the Soviet Union.
Below film professor and historian Masha Salazkina adds to her commentary featured in this episode, discussing her love for international films growing up in the USSR in the late 70s and early 80s.
To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here.
Growing up in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I hated war movies. The march of these solemn dramas across our television screens was inescapable, accelerating towards the month of May (V-Day), and then again towards November, with the Revolution and Civil War occasionally replacing the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) as subject matter. During the school year, my dad took me to the movies—and he always chose the film. In a regular prank, when I asked him what film we were going to see, he would say “I don’t know much about it, I just know it’s a war movie.” I would bite my lip and try not to cry, still willing to come along. When familiar names appeared in the credits—Adriano Celentano, Pierre Richard, Gérard Depardieu, Louis de Funès, Totò—I would beam at him triumphantly: “see, it’s not a war movie!” and he would whisper “just you wait, the war is about to start.” I would watch with suspicion for a while, anticipating explosions and gunfire, before settling in to the comedic antics of the European stars.  
In retrospect, I was totally safe: all my dad ever wanted to watch were his beloved French and Italian comedies, a preference he shared with the Soviet organization in charge of foreign film distribution, SovExportfilm. Occasionally, we’d watch British comedies. I was not thrilled about Mr. Pitkin Goes to War—the Soviet title of the 1958 British satire The Square Peg—because, you know, it was about war. Oh Lucky Man (1973), which my dad, like so many Soviet people of his generation, watched repeatedly for Alan Price’s soundtrack, I only came to appreciate as a teen. American films were rare, though I saw Some Like It Hot at the movies so many times I could recite every line. Since it was in black and white, I knew it was old. I found other films impossible to date: everything looked so different to me, there was no easy way for me to tell when the film was made. Nor did I care—especially since most movies, like dear friends, would reappear again in the movie theaters years after they were first screened. It was only when I came to the US as an exchange student at the age of fifteen that I realized—with shock and disappointment—that movie theaters in suburban Virginia were for “new releases” only. 
During the summer holidays, my movie-going was considerably more frequent: tickets were very cheap, and it was a perfect child-care alternative, especially as many movies were in two parts and over three hours long. Left to my own devices, my cinematic palette was much broader than my parents’ (my mother, as a true member of the Soviet intelligentsia, only watched “serious” movies at retrospectives and “national cinema weeks” screenings, events which I was deemed too young for at the time). There were plenty of Soviet movies on TV, and I loved many of them, but like many of my fellow citizens, when I went to the movies, I preferred to see something different. On my own, I was free to watch ABBA concert movies and Japanese animated adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales, very familiar to me from their Russian translations, both versions equally stripped of the Christian connotations of the original (although, admittedly, still not as much as Disney’s Little Mermaid would, just two decades later). There were countless Indian films, including my beloved Soviet-Indian coproductions, Alibaba and Forty Thieves (1980) and Sohni Mahiwal (Legenda o Liubvi, 1984), the first Indian film to be screened in Pakistan after a forty-year ban. Another favorite was a Soviet-Turkish coproduction, My Love, My Sorrow (Ferhat ile Şirin, 1978) with the stunning Türkan Soray in the lead. 
And then there were the Mexican films. Actually, at the time I didn’t think of them as Mexican—just as Latin American. I was too young to see Alfredo B. Crevenna’s 1971 film Yesenia when it first came out in the Soviet Union in 1979, beating all ticket sale records. When I saw it later on TV it blended in my memory with a stream of telenovelas, which by the late 1980s had become a staple of TV watching (foreign movies by that time were seen largely on pirated VHS tapes and video salons, with a very different repertoire). 
Instead, the Mexican film I saw in the movies that left a lasting impression on me was The Man of the Mushrooms (El Hombre de los Hongos, Roberto Gavaldón, 1976). That movie had everything: a luxurious mansion in the middle of a jungle; a Black orphan who grows up to be the object of everyone’s desire; incest (I imagine Soviet censors edited out anything they would have considered sexually explicit, and yet the suggestiveness was sufficient to pique a child’s imagination); hallucinogenic mushrooms served at a lavish dinner party (this was a big revelation—after all, mushroom picking was a common activity to me, as it was for most Russians. I knew some could be poisonous—but hallucinogenic? Wow!); and a murderous black panther kept as a pet! I remember walking out of the packed movie theater in a daze. For years afterwards I kept looking for it, erroneously thinking it was Brazilian (which, frankly, would have made a lot more sense given its setting). Only years later, already a film scholar and having lived in Mexico, did I learn that the film was, indeed, Mexican, and based on a novel by a very important writer, Sergio Galindo. And I understood that The Manof the Mushrooms’ dark power lay not only in its trashy exploitation but in its anti-colonial critique—a combination that was unbeatable for the purposes of the SovExportFilm, which searched for that sweet spot between massive ticket sales and sound ideological message. 
Even as a child I knew that Latin American cinema had a long history on Soviet screens. My grandparents still talked about Lolita Torres, a (minor) Argentinian film star and singer of the 1940-50s. Torres became so popular in the Soviet Union that not only was she imitated by Liudmila Gurchenko, the leading Soviet actress of the times, but apparently the name Lolita was given to tens of thousands of girls born in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Luckily, Nabokov’s masterpiece was written and published in English, and neither the book nor Kubrick’s film adaptation became available in Russia until much later, no doubt saving many women from potentially uncomfortable moments. 
I later discovered that it was Mexican films of the Golden Age of the 1940s— classics by directors like Emilio Fernández—that were first shown in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. They did not, however, seem to make as much of a cultural impact as Torres, who is barely remembered in film history, even in her own country. I suspect this had a lot to do with the absence of music and dance in Fernández’ films—those screened in the Soviet Union, María Candelaria (1944) and La Perla (1945), were his most internationally recognized but also some of the gloomiest. Lolita Torres offered a mix of mild exoticism and international popular culture that better fit young people’s hopeful, cosmopolitan aspirations during the so-called Thaw era. According to Torres’ recollections, the Soviet delegation which came to Buenos Aires in 1954 to look for films for exhibition in the Soviet Union were looking for films with “social content,” but no violence, no sex, and a lot of music. In addition to the Hugo de Carril’s Las aguas bajan turbias (1952), which fulfilled the mandate of the social critique, they picked up La edad del amor (Julio Saraceni, 1954) featuring Torres, which met the other three criteria. From that point on, films with Torres were screened so repeatedly in the Soviet Union that during her tours in 1974 and 1978 she still had enough fans to fill 10,000 seater theaters. 
This episode demonstrates the degree to which the reception of Latin American cinema in the Soviet Union differed from its circulation elsewhere, whether within the Spanish-speaking world, or Europe and North America. By the late 1960s-early 1970s, the so-called New Latin American cinema was gaining prominence across the world, both through international film festivals and informal, often leftist, film circuits. Not so in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. There were exceptions, of course: Cuban documentaries were regularly screened at the Leipzig film festival in East Germany, and Cuban feature films regularly won awards at the Karlovy Vary and Moscow film festivals; Chilean cinema in exile after the 1973 Pinochet coup was extremely visible all throughout the Soviet bloc. 
And yet, the overall reception of the “canonical” films of the New Latin American Cinema in the Soviet bloc in the late 1960s-1970s was extremely limited in its cultural and political impact. Of the most important films of this movement, many—such as Solanas and Getino’s Hour of the Furnaces or the “mature” films of Brazilian Cinema Novo (from 1964 on)—were excluded from exhibition in the Soviet Union until the 1980s or later. Although Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment and Humberto Solas’ Lucia won awards at the Karlovy Vary and Moscow film festivals, the critical reception of these films in the Eastern bloc was considerably more reserved compared to their reception in the West. Conversely, unlike their African or Arab counterparts, many of the militant Latin American filmmakers avoided engaging with the Soviet bloc. This was partly ideological and partly pragmatic. While the Soviet bloc provided a major—and in some cases the only—site of international exhibition for African and Arab cinema, political cinema from Latin America quickly found exhibition circles in Europe and in the US, enjoying a long-standing enthusiasm from Italian and French leftists (as well as the more clandestine movements in Spain and Portugal). Many of the Latin American political filmmakers shared a Maoist orientation with their European counterparts, creating unavoidable ideological tensions with the Soviet Union, where such alignment was unacceptable after the Sino-Soviet split. In turn, radical filmmakers such as Solanas and Getino considered Soviet cinema imperialist, on par with Hollywood. At the same time, the Soviet film industry starting from the late 1960s, became increasingly more oriented towards commercial success, and radical Latin American cinema was unlikely to bring in Yesenia’s spectacular ticket sales. And while many other Latin American countries during this period (including Argentina and Brazil, the other major commercial film industries) were under anti-communist dictatorships, Mexico, whose film exports were at their all-time low, was a natural business partner.
Of course, I was oblivious to this complex geopolitical and economic context at the time. I discovered the “true” classics of Mexican and Latin American cinema much later and in a totally different context—geographic, political and personal—as I progressed through the typical phases of cinephilic formation, from my Soviet fascination with Tarkovsky and Fellini to the discovery of the French New Wave and Hollywood musicals, ever outraged by the fact that these treasures were carefully hidden from me by official Soviet culture. And yet, as life has brought me into contact with so many different parts of the world and so many different people, I have come full circle and I now truly appreciate those guilty pleasures of my childhood and a very different idea of what “cosmopolitan” may mean for us today. As my son dances along to K-pop, and my friends await the next season of Luis Miguel and wonder when Sharukh Khan may come back to the screen, the cinematic geographies of my childhood seem to reflect the real world more than I once thought. I happily teach Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Glauber Rocha to my students. And yet loving Yesenia just doesn’t seem so silly to me anymore. Oh, and I still don’t like war movies.


MUBI PodcastMexican CinemaAlfredo B. Crevenna
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