With Vladimir Putin and Russia so much in the headlines lately, now seems as good a time as any to check out one or more of the following cinematic takes on the Motherland.
Anna Karenina (1935) Clarence Brown (National Velvet, The Yearling) directed this adaption of the Tolstoy novel of the same name. Greta Garbo stars in the title role as Anna Karenina wife of Czarist official Karenin (Basil Rathbone best known for his many on-screen turns as Sherlock Holmes) whose torrid love affair with Count Vronsky (Fredric March of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) tears her life apart. Generally considered the best of the many, many adaptions, it won the Mussollini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival, Garbo won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, and it was ranked #42 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions.
Doctor Zhivago (1965) Directed by David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) this British-Italian romantic epic drama based on the Boris Pasternak novel of the same name clocks in at over three hours and spans decades from Russia pre-World War I, to the Russian Revolution, to the Russian Civil War, to post World War II. KGB officer Yevgraf (the late great Alec Guinness) has tracked down a young woman Tanya (Rita Tushingham of An Awfully Big Adventure and Being Julia) he believes to be the daughter of his deceased half-brother Yuri Zhivago. He commences to tell her the tragic tale of doctor and poet Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif in arguably his greatest role) and his doomed love affair with Lara (Julie Christie). Other memorable performances come from Rod Steiger as the opportunistic Komarovsky, Tom Courtenay as idealistic student turned militant Pasha, and Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri’s wife Tasha. It won five Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography, as well as five Golden Globes including Best Lead Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture Drama.
Burnt by the Sun (1994) Co-written and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who stars in the film as well. It is the summer of 1936, the time of the Great Purge and legendary Red Army Officer Kotov is living happily with his beautiful wife Maroussia and daughter Nadia in a home owned by his in-laws who were former aristocrats. But Maroussia’s long lost fiancé the ex-Nobleman and White Army veteran Mitya suddenly returns bringing long buried secrets and devastation in his wake. Burnt by the Sun won the Grand Prize at Cannes as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Thief (1997) Pavel Chukrai wrote and directed this drama. Post World War II, poor widow Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova) and her son Sanya meet the handsome dashing officer Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov of Behind Enemy Lines and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). Tolyan becomes a father figure to Sanya and increasingly vital to both of them while at the same time showing an increasing dark side-not to mention being in fact a criminal. It won the UNICEF award at the Venice Film Festival, the Nika Award for Best Picture and Best Directing and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Red Army (2014) Gabe Polsky wrote, directed, and produced this American-Russian documentary about the legendary Soviet Union national ice hockey team through the eyes of team Slava Fetsiov and the 80’s era union known as The Russian Five. Polsky explores how politics interwove with sports and the National Hockey League’s aggressive recruiting tactics. Every single one of the players is critical of their former Viktor Tikhonov and his slave driver tactics. It currently enjoys a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Top photo from BIgstock: Assumption Cathedral (Cathedral of the Dormition Uspensky sobor) of the Moscow Kremlin in winter at sunset