Monday, October 6, 2008

Zemlya / Earth (Aleksandr Dovshenko, 1930)

In revolutionary Ukraine, the kulaks, or rich farmers, hold out stubbornly against progress, brought to the collective farm in the form of a new tractor, driven by Vassili. One of the kulaks murders Vassili at night, and the people hold a new sort of people's funeral celebration with new songs about the new life, instead of inviting the church to manage their grief. "There is no god," Vassili's father cries, and so the furious priest goes back to the church to curse the people. The murderer goes mad, crying out that he won't give up his land, spinning in circles, pressing his face into the plowed earth.

Because Soviet agricultural collectivism did not work, it is perhaps too easy to forget the condition of the common people before the revolution. They were landless serfs, bound to the landowners and living in the worst sort of poverty. Here, working the land together, their labour ennobles them and provides a promise of a better, more equitable future. The film is shot with lyrical human optimism, stunning photography of peasant faces, old faces with years and character, young smiling faces with strength and courage. The land, too, is lyrically portrayed, the film opening and closing with images of rain in the orchards, apples and melons, pears, leaves...

Some of the characters are photographed standing in grain fields, the low camera angle taking in the rippling wheat and the great white summer clouds. Vassili's bereaved fiancee hurls herself naked across her bedroom, tearing at the walls and calling his name. The people crowd the dusty lane marching and singing to lay Vassili to rest.

Zemlya is a beautiful movie; sometimes the narrative is a bit murky and hard to follow, and sometimes the photography (or the print) is dark, but the imagery carries the story as well as it does in any silent film.

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