This film is probably a master piece. To summarize the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in some four odd hours is in itself a miracle. But what's more it concentrates on Siberia and it follows one little village, Elan, in this region, and in this village essentially three generations of the Ustyuzhanin family, in fact Afanasi, the grand father, then Nikolai the father and Aleksei the son, as opposed to the other family in the village, the Solomins. The first family are the poor ones, the underlings before the revolution, the others are the top family. The revolution of course transforms these relations and we follow the lives of these three men essentially in their village, when they are there since they are often rejected, or they just go away, and then they come back. Dramatically.
Afanasi is the only one who does not come back. He is always there and lives alone with his son and no wife.
Nikolai comes back as a Soviet officer, a Communist cadre and it is dramatic because he had been thrown away at the beginning of the revolution and his paramour, from the other family, had escaped from the village to find him and follow him. It will be a difficult situation since she will be burned to death by the white Cossacks during the civil war after the revolution. He comes back with his young son in the 1930s and is killed by the other paramour of his wife, the one she left behind.
Aleksei is sent to an orphanage, then on one visit to the village and his relatives a recruiting unit at the very beginning of the war against Nazi Germany accepts his enlisting, though he is slightly too young, and he will be a hero in the war, saving his captain all by himself. But in the 1960s he comes back as a master driller to drill for oil in his village because he knows there is some: he discovered it with his father when he was a kid when they marched into the marsh known as the Devil's Mane and there oil was oozing out all over the place and they managed to set it on fire, accidently. Aleksei though wants to leave after a while, with the woman he had taught how to dance when just under 18 before he enlisted, and it is when he finally can go and is going to go, alone because the woman refuses to follow him, he goes say goodbye to his drilling mates and it is then oil is struck and starts bursting out. But it gets on fire for some unimportant reason and the derrick falls and traps one man. All the others go and Nikolai manages the situation to save that man, but Nikolai is caught by the fire and dies.
But the film is a lot more important than that. It is a real film about history. You cannot force history to do something it does not want to do because you have to work with people and people do not necessarily want to change and you have to convince them. It may take three generations to move from the superstition about the Devil's Mane to the acceptance that the village is going to be completely transformed by that oil, and the most dramatic war possible in the meantime after a very dramatic and heroic revolution.
The film then shows how at the beginning of this political revolution Nikolai was naïve and thought it was easy to make people do what they did not want to do, and he is killed just because his rival in love refuses to follow him and kills him. It fails because of some private business and affair, a love story that had not gone the way one of the lovers wanted. Trite, and yet history is also the result of such capricious and unpredictable elements. It will take thirty years and one generation for what was then possible in the 1930s to become a reality in the 1960s.
And in the 1960s we are no longer speaking of that kind of romantic revolution Nikolai had in mind. Aleksei and the other oil drillers around him are confronted to the stubborn desire of the central authorities in Moscow to develop the country and to decide in Moscow what is best for everyone and the small village and the country around is going to become the largest man-made sea with the largest hydroelectric dam and factory on the Volga. It is a pure miracle that makes oil burst out of its underground lair on the very same day, killing Aleksei, as the central committee of the Communist Party or some other bureaucratic authority like this one is meeting to take a decision in favor of the dam. The events stop the dam project in its shoes and in its trail. Unluckily, and Konchalovsky knew all about it in 1979, that was the last moment when history was right against the bureaucrats. After that the USSR entered a very dark time when bureaucracy was the only possible authority and initiative from people was discouraged and even choked, and stagnation started, leading finally to regression and the fall of the USSR. We feel that end the director could not know under the open discourse about the heroism of this Aleksei.
The last but one thing about the film that has to be said is that the director chose to always look at historical events through the intimate eyes of one character or another, mainly the Ustyuzhanins. The truth is in the eyes of the beholders and not in the brains of the leaders. The death of Lenin is actually shown, but the death of Stalin is not and when the older Aleksei revisits as a dream his visit as a child of the Devil's Mane with his father, he gets inside a small hut that had been used by some hypothetical drillers. Aleksei is dreaming of course at this moment and he gets afraid and starts calling his father, as he had done when a child, and to get out of the hut he has to tear up a portrait of Stalin. This scene is of course very symbolical, especially since in the next minute he sinks in some quicksand and drowns, another symbolical act in that dream of his.
The last element I would like to emphasize is the way the director plays on the fake black and white (always in a shade that is not black, sepia or green, etc) to have archives images of some historical moments, Lenin's arrival in Petrograd, his funeral, and later on Gagarin, for example. At the same time the same fake black and white sequences are used to bring the wishes, the dreams, the recollections of the characters. The real time of each episode is in full colors. That gives a real density to the film as if we constantly had a film in the film with flashbacks and at times flash-forwards into the future (rarely) and into dreams (more often).
I must reckon it is not easy to find that film in DVD. I got the US edition in NTSC in Russian with English subtitles. But it was worth it.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU