Born to Fly Natalia Primakova reviews "The Birds of Paradise"

in 30th Moscow International Film Festival

by Home

The 30th Moscow International Film Festival featured a classic of Soviet cinema. Roman Balayan’s The Birds of Paradise (Rayskie ptitsy) represented the Ukraine, and is the most expensive production in that nation’s history. The Ukrainian government decided to finance the project after a tender solicited by the Ministry of Culture.

During the Soviet era, Roman Balayan was one of the few directors who could make films only for the good of the soul. And this was despite the fact that Balayan was absolutely against participating in the Soviet system; he was never a member of the Communist party, and never produced any propaganda for Party functionaries.

In the 1970s, Balayan declared his independence with each new film — once in his selection of a script, and a second time by actually shooting it. This became his credo, as demonstrated in such films as Lone Wolf (Biryuk), Flights in Dreams and in Reality (Polyoty vo sne i nayavu), Guard Me, My Talisman (Khrani menya, moy talisman), The Spy (Filyor) and Two Moons, Three Suns (Dve luny, tri solntsa). These films weren’t empty entertainments; they were the work of a philosopher and excellent storyteller.

In The Birds of Paradise, Balayan replicates the style of Soviet films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This stagnant socialist style, originally intended to intimidate its audience into cringing and compromising, is used here for an absolutely frank address. And to physically express his metaphor of talent, the director applies a rather trite device — he gives his heroes the ability to fly.

From a technical point of view, Balayan’s flights are a success: The film conveys the illusion of soaring freely through the air, as in the paintings of Mark Chagall (which are also featured in the film). But where Chagall’s flying characters fit perfectly into the painter’s world, Balayan’s heroes live in the Soviet reality of the early 1980s, which doesn’t agree with them in any way.

The initial tragedy of the story is the fact that the winged create for the wingless: They are capable of teaching to fly only those chosen whose talents haven’t yet been discovered. The young writer Boris Bezborodko (Andrei Kuzichev) makes the acquaintance of an aged dissident Nikolai Petrovich (Oleg Yankovsky) and his young beloved Katenka (Oksana Akinshina). Nikolai and Katenka are going to emigrate to France, flying over the border like birds. But first the older man promises to teach his young friend to fly.

It turns out that, unlike his gift for the written word, Boris doesn’t have any innate abilities of levitation: Katenka teaches him to fly. But the KGB interferes. The flying heroes annoy the ordinary — those who are “born to crawl” — triggering their outrage and hatred. They imprison Nikolai again, as Boris and Katenka hastily fly towards Paris…

Balayan depicts the exciting chase for his birds of paradise, who manage fly to the warm lands of France. But once they attain their physical liberty, they lose their inner freedom. They can no longer fly.

The script, by Rustam Ibragimbekov — an old colleague of Balayan’s, having collaborated on Guard Me, My Talisman, The Spy, and The Night is Bright (Noch Svetla) — is based on a story by the Russian emigrant writer Dmitry Savitsky, “Waltz for K”. Adapting the text for the screen, Ibragimbekov’s intent is to remind the audience of the difficulties of intellectual life in the Soviet era, about pursuit and censorship. But the director has made quite another story. The Birds of Paradise is his nostalgic requiem for the Stagnation Era, and not just in its visual style.

It’s likely that the censorship of the time inspired Balayan more than the present day’s freedom of speech and thought. The lack of resistance — the absence of the walls he used to break — have left the director deadlocked. He has nothing to overcome, nothing to seek. The idea that the constant cat-and-mouse game with government monitors can create a fecund environment for intellectual life appears every now and then. With this oppression — in a way not possible in nominally democratic countries — comes extraordinary internal liberty. Including, perhaps, the ability to fly.