Harsh Mistress: Considering Muratova’s Post-Soviet Films


“Bold” is not a lightly applied word—as represented by the unfettered films this gray panther has made in the post-Soviet era, Kira Muratova might be the world’s most inhospitable filmmaker, demanding (and getting) respect as a living antithesis to the usual introverted subtlety of international art cinema. She may be the only working director whose work is commonly described as irritating, abusive, and obfuscatory by her own crazed fan base. Finally free to run amok in the fields of her own manias after years of struggle, Muratova has been busy vandalizing cinemagoers’ pleasure needs in new and nutty ways. Chekhov’s Motives (2002) is in many senses typical: Derived largely from Chekhov’s Tatiana Repina, the movie observes a glowering Russian family—stuck in a rather Béla Tarr-ian steppe-scape—as they squabble about money and their lives. (The combat, typically for Muratova, is made up largely of phrases repeated over and over again, to no apparent purpose.) Then the film follows the foppish college-age son as he detours to a nearby Orthodox wedding, where we sit with the overbearing congregation for an hour. You could call this distanciation, if it weren’t so claustrophobic.

Passions (1994) has a slightly different program: Accompany a pack of extroverted, sub-Fellini nutlogs to a horse farm, where they prance, vamp, and blabber about horses, love, and life. “It’s like somebody nudges me and whispers: Ask them—will they bear it?” one character says, summarizing Muratova’s strategy. Photographed in uncharacteristically lush colors, Passions won an indulgent Russian Oscar. More recently, The Tuner (2004) examines an itinerant piano tuner’s attempt to mollify his greedy girlfriend by scamming an old lady, but despite a linear story, the film’s substance is one dawdle after another: singing, schmoozing, shticking. There’s a sense of danger here, like being trapped in an elevator with a psychotic—anything can happen. Given Muratova’s degree of irrational meta-ness, the surrealists would’ve loved her.