"Melody for the Barrel-Organ": Kira Muratova's Horror Fairy Tale About Today's World

in 31st Moscow International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

Snow fell in many competition films at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival. Whether fake or real, those vast white blankets covered Russian innocence and cynicism (Nikolay Dostal’s Pete on the Way to Heaven and Aleksander Proshkin’s Miracle), Italian anger and pain (Gabriele Salvatores’ As God Commands) and Polish romanticism (Waldemar Krzystek’s Little Moscow) among others.            

In Kira Muratova’s Melody for the Barrel-Organ (Melodiya dlya sharmanki), winner of the FIPRESCI prize, the noticeably fake flakes became a major component of its aesthetics of a horror fairy tale, designed and told like a picturesque children’s book with color drawings. This beautiful film – scripted by Vladimir Zuev and shot by Vladimir Pankov – follows the journey of orphans Nikita and Aliona, born to the same mother but of different fathers, in their search for their fathers in the big city, vaguely identified as Kiev.          

Early on, the two run into a pack of wild dogs and then into a herd of even wilder street kids who steal their money and coats, lovingly made by their deceased mother. Left with nothing but each other, the orphans encounter the harsh indifference and all encompassing egotism of the modern society, as they try to find their way through a labyrinthine train station. Later, they get lost in the urban jungle, only to finally arrive at an overstuffed shopping mall – a giant cathedral of consumerism, colored with Christmas lights and guarded from above by spies who see everything and nothing.            

Along their path, the brother and sister encounter two-headed monsters and alien tribes, such as pairs of twins; the strange phone people (loud humanoids with mobile phones attached to their ears, blind and deaf to the world as long as the device is on). And, in a particularly imaginative scene, they come across the sleeping socks creatures (a privileged tribe, occupying the luxury lounge in the train station). And last but not least, at every stage of their journey, they run into stern gatekeepers who say ‘no’.            

From the children’s point of view, many of these creatures are perceived as grotesque, thanks to the big theatrical gestures of the actors. But their overstated and sometimes crass nature is balanced with fluid and elegantly choreographed camera movements adding to the magic. The rich texture of the film is supplemented by a variety of Ukrainian songs in the soundtrack, some of them performed on-screen. For example, the sequence where the children are picked up by a couple of gamblers and dragged to a casino, is accompanied by the musical theme from Richard Rush’s 1980 The Stuntman (about a man on the run, lost in the fairy tale world of the movies). Yet, some of the most powerful scenes are completely silent.            

Muratova’s allegorical comment on the horrors of the viciously materialistic society in post-Soviet Eastern Europe – where the gap between rich and poor has become terrifyingly deep – is based on a Russian folk tale (with added touches from Dickens and Andersen), successfully planted in a current setting, and therefore effectively de-familiarizing it. The film also converses with other cinematic texts that follow mythical and horrible journeys of a brother and sister in search of a father figure. Most notably Charles Laughton’s expressionistic masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Theo Angelopoulos’ study in slow-motion Landscape in the Mist (1988). But whereas the young siblings in Angelopoulos’ film cross the river to the land of the dead, the kids in Melody for the Barrel-Organ get a glimpse of the Garden of Eden before thrown back into hell.              

What mars this mostly masterful film is its length (149 minutes) – some repetitive scenes go on for too long, causing a drop in attention – as well as a couple of overstated motifs. About half an hour before the end of the film, a fairy godmother, tiara and all, arrives on the scene, hovering around as if she had hidden wings. This character, which brings a false promise for salvation, is too obvious, as is the false hope. But this crude note fades away as the film comes to its harrowing conclusion. 

Yael Shuv