Ukraine-based filmmaker Kira Muratova, who passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-three, made nearly twenty feature films throughout a fifty-year career riddled with contradictions. She was the only filmmaker to have one of her works banned during the Gorbachev era—Soviet authorities’ objections to her work was as often based on aesthetic as political grounds—but after the Nika Awards were established in 1987 as Russia’s rough equivalent of the Oscars, she was nominated for eight and won five, including best director for Passions (1994) and The Tuner (2004). She has been called both “one of the Russian-speaking world’s most influential filmmakers” and “one of the most marginalized figures in Russian cinema.” That responses to her work and assessments of its impact can be so varied is a testament to just what a unique and unclassifiable filmmaker she was. Adrian Martin has observed that critics “try in vain to divide her films into opposing groups, like: the plotless and the plotted; or the color works and the black-and-white ones. As if this categorizing gesture could somehow impose order on these films in their wild variety, from one to the next and within each one!”
Programmer Richard Peña has called her first feature, Brief Encounters (1967), “a fascinating portrait of a casual love triangle in a ramshackle Soviet town.” When the Karlovy International Film Festival presented Long Farewells (1971), the festival noted that it’s an “acrid romance about love and loneliness [that] became one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated banned films.” As Aaron Cutler points out in Senses of Cinema, Muratova’s “delicate, tonally fine-tuned explorations of private searches for happiness differed greatly from the propagandistic Social Realist filmmaking that dominated the Soviet film industry of the 1960s and 1970s.”
The Asthenic Syndrome, released in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is probably Muratova’s best-known film outside of the Russian-speaking world. Besides another Nika, it won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale. Distinguished by its bifurcated structure, The Asthenic Syndrome opens black-and-white with a middle-aged woman ranting about the death of her husband (who happens to resemble Stalin). These first sequences are then revealed to be a film-within-a-film. Switching to color, Muratova shows us a bored audience walking out before shifting focus to a failed novelist who suffers from narcolepsy. Writing for Senses of Cinema last year, Evgeny Gusyatinskiy called The Asthenic Syndrome an “epic and shocking portrait of those turbulent times” and “a clear manifesto of Muratova’s vision.” And reviewing the film for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: “It may drive you nuts—as it was undoubtedly meant to—but you certainly won’t forget it.”
Writing in 2005, Rosenbaum found it “hard to imagine another director working in the former Soviet Union who’s more transgressive.” Noting that her 1994 film Passions is widely regarded as one of her lighter features, Rosenbaum argued that “it still displays all the screwy attributes of her other post-glasnost features: minimal plot, maniacal repetition of a few lines of dialogue (which initially sound absurdist but ultimately register as hyperrealist), an unorthodox style of editing punctuated by jump cuts, a special feeling and fascination for animals (in this case, racehorses and circus dogs), and a highly aggressive, physical, and declamatory style of acting, by professionals and nonprofessionals alike.”
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