The most distinctive feature of the 31st edition of the Moscow Film Festival was its Russian program. It was unusually impressive, mostly due to The Miracle (Chudo) by Alexander Proshkin and Peter on the Way to Heaven (Petya po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe) by Nikolai Dostal. The two films also happen to share a couple of important features: their historical setting and some specifically Russian miracles.
In Proshkin’s movie, a girl freezes into a motionless statue for many months after having attempted a modern dance with St. Nicholas’ icon in her hands. This miracle throws the local party bureaucracy into a crisis, brought to an end only when a male virgin is found to break the spell. The movie is based on an allegedly true story, believed to have happened in 1956 in the city of Belgorod. The fantastic story is framed by epochal historical events, more specifically by Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech on Stalin’s crimes, delivered that very year at the 20th Communist Party Congress.
The other movie, Petya, is set in February 1953, just couple of weeks prior to the death of the “great leader” Stalin. Its eponymous character, Petya, is a kind of a Russian fool, weird and good-natured, whose intellectual level does not differ from that of a five-year-old kid. Towards the end of the film, the poor devil enthusiastically joins the chase of a runaway inmate of the near-by forced labor camp (part of the Gulag empire), but is shot by mistake by a guard. This marks the end of Petya, who is universally liked by everyone, even by the brutal guards. The most innocent of all the characters of the film, he is just another victim of the regime, of the evil empire, and of the universal violence. On a symbolic level, Petya epitomizes everyone’s, including our own, infantilism, enchantment with the evil, and tendency towards devil-worshipping, embodied by Stalin who is “still” with us.
Not surprisingly, Stalin got the first place in the national competition The Name of Russia. It was only thanks to the managers of the Second TV Channel, shocked by such an illustration of ubiquitous insanity, that he was moved to the third place. One of the main merits of Dostal’s film is exactly in its jovial and somewhat careless tone, pretending in earnest that the movie is not about Stalin and the Stalinist era, but about the day-to-day life of ordinary people in a normal country. Psychologically, this approach is also very realistic: indeed, people could be happy under any circumstances, and neither Stalin, nor Mao, nor any other dictator could eradicate simple human joy. This is why the film is so impressive: perhaps, in a final analysis, its major theme is the banality of evil. There is a story by Warlam Shalamov, a former Gulag inmate, about a prison guard officer, who proudly demonstrates the ears he cut off from a detained prisoner. This blond guy, by no means a monster, is absolutely sincere in his moral blindness and inability to understand his actions. This mundane immorality, this banality of unprecedented crimes easily mistaken for heroic deeds, is the main motif of this film, shaped in the style of a fairy tale.
Therefore Petya echoes perhaps The Miracle and even Dostoevsky who is known to have said that if there is no God anything is permitted. In The Miracle, God reveals himself in a quite unequivocal manner: indeed, it is easy to believe that a blasphemous person could turn into a statue. But as Yuri Arabov, the scriptwriter, said at a press conference: “God has no obligation to constantly confirm His existence. He does not need to provide miracles every day to make people believe in Him.”
In other words, the main idea of the film is not whether God exists and is capable of punishing or pardoning us. It is about life as a miracle, constantly informing our every-day life. And we just have to believe in it. In this sense, the Orthodox Christian discourse – an integral part of the festival’s message – was brought home in a particularly forceful way by the filmmakers of The Miracle and Petya via their impressive artistic techniques.
Edited by Christina Stojanova
© FIPRESCI 2009