A study of two young women living in rural Ryazan and how they deal with life, love and the First World War. Breathtaking and breathtakingly underrated, this picture shows that director Olga Preobrazhenskaya deserves to be remembered with the Soviet greats.
Vasilisa the Brave
This hasn’t been the easiest review to write. You see, I have certain standards for my silent film writing but my every instinct is to write “OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S SO GOOD, SEE IT NOW!!!!” 500 times and call it a day. The Peasant Women of Ryazan is a jewel in the crown of Soviet cinema, a bucolic celebration of the countryside… until it turns up some earth and finds nasty things growing underneath. It also features one of the very best heroines I have ever had the pleasure to see on the screen.
(I’m building this picture up, in case you haven’t noticed.)
The story concerns the lives of two young women: Anna (Raisa Puzhnaya), a poor orphan living with her aunt, and Vasilisa (Emma Tsesarskaya), the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Anna catches the eye of both Vasilisa’s father, Vasily Shironin (Kuzma Yastrebitsky) and her brother, Ivan (Georgi Bobynin). In order to lure Anna into his house, Shironin arranges for her to marry Ivan in spite of the fact that she has no dowry to speak of.
Meanwhile, Vasilisa has fallen for the local blacksmith, Nikolai (Ivan Savelyev), but her father disapproves and will not give his permission for her to marry such a poor man. While Ivan and Anna are mild souls, Vasilisa has no tolerance for hypocrisy and she will not give up on happiness just because her father is a bully. When he threatens to horsewhip Nikolai, she forces him to back down and leaves the family home.
Shironin has been carrying on an affair with his housekeeper, the widow Lukerya (Yelena Maksimova) and made at pass at his son’s bride at her own wedding but it is Vasilisa’s actions that cause a scandal. She doesn’t care but Nikolai withers somewhat under the scorn.
Things might have headed to a fiery confrontation except that, oh did I mention that this film is set in 1914? The young men are drafted and sent to the front. Vasilisa is left to tend Nikolai’s small farm by herself and Anna is left at the mercy of Shironin. Dark, nasty things under the surface…
Olga Preobrazhenskaya was a veteran actress when she turned her hand to directing. (She collaborated professionally with Ivan Pravov and he is sometimes listed as the co-director of The Peasant Women of Ryazan but the matter is by no means settled.) This picture doesn’t feature the fireworks of, say, Kuleshov, Eisenstein or Vertov but I appreciate the subtle touch and Preobrazhenskaya’s handling of her performers. Like all silent era film industries, Russian actors employed a wide variety of styles and while the famous Soviet titles tend to be the ones featuring broader gestures, Preobrazhenskaya coaches something a bit more refined out of her cast.
The picture is a celebration of Russian rural life (or is it?) and the production is a swirl of harvests and woven fabric and festivals and merriments intercut with the darker side of the country and small villages: how a single wicked patriarch can spread unhappiness to everyone connected to him. This country life with a dark, poison center can be compared to the Americana classic Tol’able David and, indeed, Vasilisa alone must slay her Goliath at the grand finale. (Spoiler: She does it all with three words.)
The juxtaposition of whirling floral skirts, garlands and swings with destructive cruelty leaves open the question of whether or not the filmmakers loved the countryside or if there is a note of sarcasm in the prettiness. (This certainly is a possibility, as anyone who has listened to the sardonic music of Prokofiev can tell you.)
However, I must confess that I was charmed by the beauty. I can’t help it! As a textile nerd, I was enthralled. And I love to see the everyday culture of people from around the world, even something as small as the way they eat soup. In addition, there is a natural quality to the way the film is shot and presented; Preobrazhenskaya brings us close to see the details of the work being done and the characters are never idle for a moment. There is always threshing, weaving, forging, plowing, nursing and eating to be done and the film moves at a deliberate pace but is never still for an instant.
Kuzma Yastrebitsky’s performance as Shironin is a prime example of the banality of evil. A selfish, grasping old lecher, he has never had to control his impulses because he was protected by his money and position. That sounds an awful lot like a certain monarchy that was recently in power somewhere… In fact, there is a good argument to be made that much of the film symbolizes the conflict between the proletariat and aristocracy. Shironin abuses and manipulates the women of the cast but they provide the bulk of the work that has created his wealth.
Women are also complicit in Shironin’s abuse of Anna. Throughout the film, she only has eyes for Ivan and rebuffs her father-in-law in no uncertain terms but she is blamed for the situation and forced into corner by their harshness. As stated above, her personality is sweet and trusting, not exactly a formula for survival in 1910s Russia.
Vasilisa, on the other hand, was made for a fight. She has her father’s fire and both the backbone and moral fiber that he lacks and she isn’t afraid to jump into the fray when she sees her rights being trampled or her friends being mistreated. (Spoiler) At the grand finale, when she finally exposes Shironin for what he is and strides out of the house like she’s Toshiro Mifune, I gave her a little standing ovation right then and there. I absolutely adore her and I want a seven hour miniseries on the adventures of Vasilisa.
(Incidentally, the folk tale Vasilisa the Beautiful was the subject one of my all-time favorite illustrations by Ivan Bilibin and Vasilisa was the lone woman warrior in the Battle on Ice in Alexander Nevsky. So, when I saw that Shironin’s daughter had the name, I expected good things and was not disappointed.)
The topic of a country girl being abused by men in power was a popular one in both American cinema and Russian. In Russia, it had been there since the beginning; The Peasants’ Lot (1912) centered on the misadventures of a nice peasant girl who must leave hearth, home and Ivan Mosjoukine to get a job in the city. Like The Peasant Women of Ryazan, that picture focused on the characters instead of the potentially melodramatic situation and was a small gem of early Russian cinema as a result.
The Peasant Women of Ryazan is so precisely my cup of tea that I think it’s possible that it was somehow made for my by time travelers. We get a wonderful setting, excellent acting, a gutsy heroine, light and darkness and a grand finale that had me cheering. Yes, please!
The Peasant Women of Ryazan is a masterpiece of silent storytelling and its depth and richness mean that it rewards rewatches. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD and Bluray as part of the Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology released by Flicker Alley. https://amzn.to/2DBEY5iIt is accompanied by a score that incorporates vocal folk music. It’s worth noting that Russian audiences of the silent era did sing along with film scores if they recognized the melody, so this is quite suitable. (I love traditional folk music too. This film can do no wrong!)
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