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Of Sun and Rivers: Yuliya Solntseva’s Ukrainian Trilogy

The three films by Aleksandr Dovzhenko's wife and collaborator are based on his scripts and imbued by a poetic sensibility the two shared.
Poem of an Inland Sea
Poem of an Inland Sea. Image courtesy of Gosfilmofond.
Yuliya Solntseva, whose pseudonym is derived from Russian for ‘sun,’ has largely remained eclipsed by the fame of her husband and collaborator, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, one of the most original filmmakers that came from the Soviet silent cinema. She was also blessed by that union. Solntseva’s “Ukrainian Trilogy,” which New York’s Museum of the Moving Image will screen this weekend, was made from Dovzhenko’s scripts that he never produced, having died in 1956 right before principal shooting was scheduled to begin on Poem of a Sea. The project was picked up by Solntseva who completed the film in 1958—and went on to direct two more of her husband’s scripts, imbuing the films with a poetic sensibility that the two of them shared.
MoMI added “Inland” to the sea of the name, which the original title lacks as an unnecessary specification. The metaphor of Solntseva’s film is an impossible idea of actually “building” a sea: essentially a propaganda piece for Soviet industrialization, Poem of a Sea treats the project as a modern myth and thus avoids technicalities. A village by the Dnieper river is about to be drowned by a dam constructed nearby, and, as locals prepare to relocate, the village is visited by former natives who have moved to cities: a kind of a community reunion before houses, trees, cemeteries and memories will go under water for the well-being of the Soviet Ukraine. Among visitors is a general who is technically the protagonist; the story, however, roams freely between multiple point of views, occasionally incorporating characters’ inner speech as voice over. The tale of this small community is one of an epic scale where single focus is impossible: Dovzhenko’s script incorporates mythical tropes to equate humans to gods—the deluge, that in the Old Testament was an act of God’s abomination, in this work is a glorious, miraculous achievement of collective human genius. 
Finding a contemporary reference to this style of filmmaking is not an easy task, but try to imagine a Terrence Malick who lives in the USSR and has been formed by Communism instead of Christianity. Like Malick’s, Solntseva’s orotundity, especially in Poem of a Sea, borders occasionally on unintentional comedy—a quality of the officially sanctioned style of Socialist Realism, which at the time tended to artificiality, highly conventional dialogue and implausible conflicts of good versus better. None of these traits are alien to Solntseva’s cinema, but even in Poem of a Sea—the weakest of the trilogy—it’s tempting to treat them as poetic license: the film is so stylized that you almost expect the characters to rhyme their lines, in concordance with the title. Their manner of speech, as well as rhetorical political soliloquies that they sometimes deliver, match, for instance, Solntseva’s impressionistic use of color. In The Story of the Flaming Years (1960), a soldier named Ivan reminisces about his elderly parents in his native village and the brash palette of the battlefield, dominated by shades of red (flames of the title), changes at instant to a murky, desaturated color of a snowy village where they live; even the parents’ faces look grey, and there is as little realism to it as there is to eloquent cadences of Ivan’s passionate speeches against the Nazi occupants. Again, Solntseva’s second feature is an epic—a story of a modern-day Ulysses who fights in the Second World War from the moment of Hitler’s invasion to the USSR to the fall of Berlin, and then returns to his Ithaca by the Dnieper. Homer’s unlikely metaphors suggest a world quite unlike ours—his permanent epithet for sky is “bronze,” and bronze sky is just what we see in The Story of the Flaming Years. Solntseva’s films, like Dovzhenko’s, are often compared to poetry, and they look back to the ancient meaning of poetry as a medium of heroic narratives.
The Story of the Flaming Years earned Solntseva the Best Direction award in Cannes—a fact that was brought from oblivion recently when Sofia Coppola became only the second woman to win the accolade. However, her masterpiece is undoubtedly the trilogy’s final work: Enchanted Desna, completed in 1964. There is even less dramaturgical continuity in this film than there is in the two others that alternated between points of view and settings but were at least linear. The quasi-autobiographical script by Dovzhenko follows his namesake Aleksandr in three different timelines: his childhood in rural Ukraine (again on a river bank: this time of Desna, a tributary of Dnieper), the Second World War, and present day. The three time periods, of which the earliest one is the most prominent, are linked to each other by association, following a logic of the main character’s consciousness—in the spirit of the time when similar experiments were made by Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais, and later by Carlos Saura and Andrei Tarkovsky. The effect of subjectivity is supported by Aleksei Temerin’s camera, which moves as if it is wandering like thoughts in a young boy’s mind. (The most beautiful cinematographic moment, however, is one in The Story of the Flaming Years, also lensed by Temerin: wounded Ivan falls on the ground, preparing to die, and camera swirls around him, as if his soul is trying to fly away.) 
Epic qualities of the earlier films recede in Enchanted Desna to give way for the lyrical side of Solntseva’s film poetry—and yet its mythical aspect is still there. A pristine landscape of the childhood scenes seems like it exists beyond time, determined only by natural cycles; villagers and Aleksandr himself all have an immediate relationship with nature and its spirits. Floods come on Easter, and the sun also rises, and the sun goes down. When the boy hears two horses talking to each other it doesn’t even come as a surprise. “Long ago, gods were riding on my back,” says one to the other. Meanwhile, the grand narrative of the world war is also rendered along similar lines—the longest scene of that timeline is a group of soldiers crossing a river in the night, taken on a boat by a querulous Charon. All the war scenes are dark—an underworld in contrast to the earthly idyll. Industrial utopia of the modern timeline is a break from the enchanted world, and the dutiful enthusiasm of the film’s ending—“They’ll transform the Earth and take over the universe,” says the narrator as machines plow a field—betrays a kind of awe closer to terror than excitement. Modernity that promises to “cut off rivers and reverse them” will ask for other poets.

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