Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999
K I N O E Y
Birth and Rebirth
Larisa Sadilova's S dniom rozhdenia
Andrew James Horton
Larisa Sadilova's award-winning S dniom rozhdenia (Happy Birthday, 1998) lies in that rich and underexplored ground between non-fiction and fiction. Set in a Russian maternity ward, S dniom rozhdenia documents daily life at the ward and discusses the social issues which arise there. The film is also a finely acted and well balanced piece of story-telling and is indicative of the suprisingly strong state of Russian cinema.
S dniom rozhdenia is framed by wintry sequences showing the closing of the maternity ward, which acts as the film's central star; a mournful contrast to the summery humorous shots running throughout the rest of the film. Employing professional and non-professional actors, Sadilova, who herself trained as an actress, follows five women who have just given birth and uses their story as a vehicle for both a detailed description of life in a maternity ward and a quirky caricature of life in Russia.
Finely characterised, her heroines are real and human, and their weakness and strengths portray a depth and feeling which go beyond mere description. Sadilova embraces both the idealism and the realism of giving birth. Indeed, the mismatch between the two often provides the charm in this film. In one scene, a nurse takes the bottles of champagne the ward staff have been presented with back to the shop to resell them; at the end of the film, when an overly enthusiastic father presents the nurses with a whole crate of bubbly, we can't help wondering if these are the same bottles we saw earlier. Whatever their previous history, we know where they are going.
In choosing a path between documentary and fiction, Sadilova's film succeeds in capturing the best of both worlds. Her film is both aesthetically pleasing and a fascinating record of life in Russia, with the atmosphere superbly created by black and white photography. Although not as innovative as contemporary pioneers such as Artistikisyan, Sokurov and Balabanov, Sadilova has nevertheless created a film which has a fresh and original air to it.
Part of this freshness is no doubt due to the fact that she has refused to view this world through male eyes. The film, which is dedicated to her son, turns the tables on the male world of cinema and depicts men as seen by her five women. Like the entire film, this device is so simple on paper it would hardly seem worthy of praise, were the results not so effective in practice.
S dniom rozhdenia is firm evidence that Russian cinema is in fine form, especially when compared to the nose-dives standards have taken in other formerly Communist countries. Whilst Central Europe has fallen under the hypnotic sway of Hollywood glitz and shallowness, Russian directors seemed to have retained a greater grip on their cinematographic integrity, and the country has produced some truly eye-opening films this decade. Perhaps, this comparative strength is due to the fact that Russian cinema has already had its nadir - the years of stagnation while Brezhnev was in the Kremlin.
S dniom rozhdenia is Sadilova's debut feature and as such is proof that young directors are still interested in inventive film-making in Russia. With talent such as Sadilova emerging, Russia looks set to enter the next millennium as Europe's hothouse of cinematic ideas. Russian cinema is unlikely to be as strong as it was in the 1920s. However, the recent wave of Russian films which have received international attention for their mould-breaking accomplishments would seem to indicate that something of the country's formerly fearsome reputation in the field of film might be making comeback. If Sadilova continues to produce films such as S dniom rozhdenia, she will certainly contribute to this revival.
Andrew James Horton, 3 May 1999
Shown at the 21st Creteil festival of films by women.
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