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Locarno Honors Forgotten Soviet Master Marlen Khutsiev

Locarno Honors Forgotten Soviet Master Marlen Khutsiev

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

Pitched somewhere between the floating temporal worlds of Terences Davies and Malick, with a start in monochrome portraits of malaise as lugubrious and mysterious as Antonioni’s, the cinema of Soviet master Marlen Khutsiev enjoyed an intense all-35mm revival at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where the 89-year-old ex-Soviet director received a Golden Leopard for lifetime achievement.

The retrospective consisted of six films, moving backwards from his last completed feature, 1992’s “Infinitas”, and finishing with his first solo venture, 1958’s “Two Fjodors.” The program also featured such rarities as 1983’s exquisite “Postscript,” a Slovenian print of the otherwise all but unseeable TV movie “It Was the Month of May,” and the long version of his acclaimed “I Am Twenty,” which tied for the Jury Prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival with Bunuel’s “Simón of the Desert.” The latter ostensibly an unmissable classic of ’60s Soviet cinema, I missed its only screening in Locarno due to its three and a half hour running time clashing with anything and everything else in my schedule. Looking at the film on DVD now, I realise that the callousness encouraged by as packed a program as Locarno’s is not always an impulse to be yielded to.

Since his successes with “I Am Twenty,” “Infinitas,” and his 1966 masterpiece “July Rain,” which also showed at Locarno as, suitably, a thunderstorm pounded the frail roof of the theatre with rain, Khutsiev’s star has faded in the Western world, eclipsed by that of Tarkovsky, his obvious analogue. But where Tarkovsky’s worlds are atmosphered by religion — his spirituality and doubt often both the start and end point of the movies — Khutsiev’s work remains defiantly, serenely, even unfashionably secular. 

In “Infinitas,” a sort of drab proto-“Tree of Life,” the same winsome junk we see again and again in Malick and Tarkovsky — curtains billowing into a room, camera tracking backwards; slim, female cipher frolicking away from the roaming POV shot, her over-the-shoulder glances meeting the lens’ and the hero’s shared gaze; the yellow heads of wheat-stalks swaying in the breeze as a character strides into the centre of the field as if wading through time itself, etc.—take on a humble, materialist dimension in Khutsiev. Likewise, the shades of Antonionian melancholy in “July Rain” are understood, unlike Antonioni’s ethereal glumness, as practical components of his relaxed visual and emotional cartography; his concerns are with charting despondency when it appears and only then transforming it into something poetic.

Since 1978, Khutsiev has taught in VGIK, the famous Moskow film school. One of his most famous students, Abderrahmane Sissako, the director of “Timbuktu,” “Waiting For Happiness,” and “Bamako,” credits Khutsiev as having “recognizing something in [me] that others failed to see” and for allowing him to stay at VGIK — where like many African students he had earned a scholarship to study film — after several failed projects caused alarm. In his time at VGIK, Khutsiev has also mentored such directors as the late Vasily Pichul and Bakur Bakuradze, whose films have competed twice in various sections at Cannes and once — this year in fact — in Locarno.

Today, Marlen Khutsiev is a sprightly octogenarian with fond memories of his ease and success working in the Soviet film industry and a sincere gratitude for this late-stage revival of cinephile interest in his work. Watching “July Rain” is a baffling experience first and foremost: it appears that only the alien quality of its Soviet background, and accordingly its non-existence outside of discreet private trackers, blocks it from being considered the classic it is.

In this year’s festival of populist retrospectives exploring brassy, hyper-masculine auteurs and their violent sensitivity (Peckinpah, Cimino) and respectable, studious explorations of adored European arthouse figures (Bellochio, Bulle Ogier), the mystic cabal that stalked day after day through the 33°C heat and gathered at the secret chamber of La Altra Sala, the most remote cinema in Locarno Film Festival, to share the experience of watching the sober, sombre films of Marlen Khutsiev, unearthed treasures whose preciousness was unrivaled anywhere else in Locarno. All that’s left now that the retrospective has left its faint but definite trace is for these recondite riches to be offered humbly up to the rest of the whole cinephile world.

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