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Earth Reviews

Alexander Dovzhenko, along with Eisenstein and Pudovkin, is considered one of the three great masters of Soviet silent cinema. Based on (and produced at) the height of a bloody and bitter struggle between private farmers and Soviet collectivists, EARTH engendered a storm of controversy at home before winning almost universal acclaim as one of the screen's great lyric masterpieces. (It was deemed the best film of all time by director Lindsay Anderson in 1952 and by film historian Lotte Eisner in 1972.) Simon (Nicholas Nademski), an old Ukrainian farmer, lies in his fields surrounded by his loved ones. Before dying, he sits up and eats a piece of fruit. The old man's son, Opanas (Stephan Shkurat), and his grandson, Basil (Simon Svashenko), argue about the new Soviet plan to collectivize agriculture; Basil is all for it, his more conservative father somewhat opposed. The pro-collectivization faction of the farming community is thrilled by the arrival of a new tractor. With the help of the vehicle, they knock down fences enclosing the private farms of the kulaks (rich peasant farmers) and proceed to raise and harvest bounteous crops. One evening, while walking down a deserted dirt road, Basil breaks into a jubilant dance and is shot and killed by a sniper's bullet. When Opanas, who has gone out in search of his son's murderer, interrogates Thomas (Peter Masokha), a young kulak, Thomas denies responsibility for the crime. Opanas then renounces his religious faith and decrees that his son be buried by friends without benefit of clergy. Hundreds of young people attend Basil's funeral and turn it into a rally for collectivization. Meanwhile, the old village priest petitions God to smite down the impious collectivists, a curse that immediately brings suffering to Basil's fiancee (Ellen Maximova) and pregnant mother. A berserkly defiant Thomas publicly confesses to Basil's murder, but the righteous and inspired mourners ignore him. For her part, Basil's fiancee has a surprising encounter when the ghost of her dead lover appears to her and takes her in his arms. The political conflict dramatized in EARTH was a very real one, but the Soviet-sponsored film stacked the deck in favor of the collectivists, who in actuality were every bit as ruthless as their kulak adversaries. After a rapturously successful premiere, the movie was faulted for eschewing the simple, the lucid, and the politically correct and favoring the vagaries of lyricism. One influential Russian critic, Demian Bedny, wrote, "Simply to me this film is STRANGE!" Dovzhenko was shattered. "I was so stunned by [Bedny's] attack," he wrote, "so ashamed to be seen in public, that I literally aged and turned gray overnight.... At first I wanted to die." Bedny's charge may have been philistine, but it was not entirely inaccurate. EARTH is strange. Its wackiness was probably a function of the tension that arises when an artist, in order to work, is forced to try to flatter his authoritarian patrons and advance their agenda and at the same time follow his own aesthetic dictates. The director of EARTH was the Ferdinand the Bull of film, a lyric poet who would have been much more comfortable photographing people picking daisies than turning tractors into totems. Critical consensus has it that Dovzhenko had no interest in EARTH's story line, a speculation supported by his failure to inject a simple insert of a rifle barrel into the murder scene, thus rendering Basil the victim of an apparent coronary rather than a gunshot. EARTH begins and ends with gorgeous odes to nature. Sprinkled in between are several remarkable stretches of pastoral poetry: a series of young couples, silent and still, basking in the beauty of a moonlit night after a successful harvest; Basil's long, long walk-jig down a dark country road; etc. Despite all that, EARTH is a surprisingly cold film. Its characters interact but never connect. Except for crowds and the extras in the night scene cited above, two or more people rarely share the same frame. Dovzhenko likes to display faces, one at a time, and the accumulation of one-shots is ultimately alienating and oppressively anti-sensuous. The tragedy of Dovzhenko is that of a gifted cineaste stymied and almost maddened by the demands, actual and implicit, of his ultra-repressive state sponsors. There's a certain looniness in EARTH that, coupled with the movie's damp lyricism and its hints of a closet melodramatist at work, indicates that Dovzhenko, in another time or place, might have made a first-rate director of horror movies. Quite possibly he would have been freer and happier working in the interests of Hammer than those of hammer and sickle. (Nudity.)