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Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu/Ivan Vasil’evich Changes Profession

This week, there’s no need for my Good and Bad selves to duke it out.  For once, I’m in complete agreement with myself, and what I want to tell you is this:

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest online DVD retailer/suitably international film library/Soviet film aficionado and find/buy/borrow/wheedle yourself a copy of Leonid Gaidai’s 1973 film Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu. You’ll find it released by Russian Cinema Council as Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future. Then, find a comfortable seat, pour yourself some tea/wine/vodka/mead and enjoy (hare’s kidneys and pike heads with garlic are optional).  You won’t regret it, I promise.

The premise of this beautifully silly comedy – based on Bulgakov’s 1935 play Ivan Vasil’evich – is a great example of the “accidental place switch”.  Due to a halberd-induced time machine malfunction, tsar Ivan Vasil’evich – Ivan the Terrible – finds himself in the strange environment of a 1970s Soviet apartment block, while the regulations-obsessed building superintendent Ivan Vasil’evich Bunsha (played by the same actor: Iurii Iakovlev) ends up taking the place of the tsar.  Accompanying Bunsha is the impossibly blue-eyed conman Zhorzh Miloslavskii (Leonid Kuravlev). While Shurik, the time machine’s inventor (Aleksandr Demianenko) tries to keep his imperial guest happy, Miloslavskii must try to keep himself and the frankly rather thick Bunsha alive and whole in what can only be called interesting times. (I love Miloslavskii; he must be one of my favourite characters in anything, ever.)  Meanwhile, Shurik’s actress wife Zina (Natalia Selezneva) has run off to the Caucasus with her lover Iakin, and Bunsha’s wife Uliana is starting to notice that her husband is missing…

What results is a wonderful mix of physical comedy, visual gags, wordplay and satire providing something for every viewer, no matter what their level of familiarity with Russian culture.  Of course, if you know the various stories around Ivan the Terrible – particularly Eisenstein’s films, Lev Mei’s plays and Rimskii-Korsakov’s operas – you’ll find even more to laugh about; the same goes if you have some knowledge of Soviet everyday life and culture.  And knowing Russian unlocks a whole other level of wordplay in the script.  But all this is the icing on the cake.  What makes this film so utterly fantastic is the delightfully barmy feel of it all, the song and dance routines, the good-humoured caricature of (I think) universally recognisable types, the gleeful sense of subversion, and the particular chemistry of the cast.

Of course, I know that my complete and devoted love for this film is at least partly down to taste.  I will freely admit that not everyone might find singing horses, Kremlin rooftop chases and drunk building superintendents as hilarious as I do.  Nonetheless, I would urge you to give this film a try.  Ivan Vasil’evich belongs to a tradition of irreverent comedy which seems to be relatively rarely exported, or perhaps rarely expected, outside of Russia.  (If I had a ruble for every time I heard someone characterise Russian culture as gloom, doom and long novels, I’d be doing well.)  For me, it’s the perfect remedy for those days when life – and work – seems to be just that much more of a struggle; a gentle and funny reminder that even the most powerful people in their own sphere can sometimes find themselves in a strange land, baffled by bureaucracy.

9 comments on “Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu/Ivan Vasil’evich Changes Profession

  1. Caoimhe
    November 30, 2009

    Looks like this review was a labour of love Kirsty!! I had the pleasure of your company watching this movie (and the pleasure of your left over Duck in plum sauce too). It is definitely a different style of comedy than the type I’ve seen before and was really interesting, and very funny once you worked out the type of humour involved. For me, I was really interested in the 1970s soviet settings, because, to be honest, I had no idea what 1970s Russia looked like, and that in itself was an education.

    Anyway, thank you for showing me the movie and for the review, very nice all round.

  2. Pingback: Watch this film « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  3. kirstyjane
    November 30, 2009

    Thanks Caoimhe for the lovely comment! I know I’ve a terrible habit of subjecting people around me to Ivan Vasil’evich – this review was just the next logical step…

    My terrible secret is that when I watch this on my own, I put on the Russian subtitles so I can sing along.

  4. melrose
    November 30, 2009

    Can’t wait to see it, I think… I might need some help with the cultural references! I’m not sure why, but, for some reason, a season of watching rather strange French films, with Johnee ‘alliday, sprang to mind!

  5. kirstyjane
    November 30, 2009

    *waves to mum*

  6. Jackie
    November 30, 2009

    *waves to Kirsty’s mum*
    I was curious when you mentioned this film, but was not expecting a comedy! Sort of a Russian version of “The Prince & the Pauper”, isn’t it, only with grown-ups? I’m tempted to try finding this (maybe my library would have it) and watching for cultural education. But I definitely won’t be having pike’s heads in garlic with it!

  7. Dovile
    December 3, 2009

    Oh, how I love this movie! I’ve watched it maybe ten times, it’s my favorite of all Shurik’s movies (yes, if you don’t know this already, there are more movies with Shurik made). Well, I might be not very objective, as I’m from a former Soviet republic, so I grew up watching it, in Russian, and I get all the jokes:) So I can’t imagine if it would be easy to follow for someone who isn’t familiar with Soviet culture. But it’s got many non-verbal jokes, and yeah, the ordinary people did really lived similarly like this in the 1970 Soviet union, excepting the time machine:)

    If you love this comedy, check out other comedy movies by its director, especially about Shuriks adventures. He made several other comedies, all set in soviet Russia and similar in tone and jokes to this one. His bio on has the complete list.

    @ kirstyjane:

    Don’t worry, your secret isn’t so terrible after all, as many songs from this and other its director’s comedies became hits in the Soviet Union, and now are considered clasics and are immediately recognisable in Russia and other former SU republics:)

  8. kirstyjane
    December 3, 2009

    Bol’shoe spasibo, Dovile! I do often hear the songs on Russian radio but I chalked that up to my tendency to listen to Radio Dacha (I like estrada, what can I say).

    I definitely think that getting the wordplay and cultural references makes the film even better – and being a Russianist I probably have an unfair advantage. But I’ve made quite a few people watch it since I got the DVD and it seems to translate very well to non-Russian speakers too (probably with the visual humour and generally good natured fun).

    I’m definitely looking for more of Gaidai’s comedies. If they are all like this, I think I might have a new favourite director…

  9. Dovile
    December 3, 2009

    Ne za shto:)

    Yes, his comedies from ’70-80 are very similar to this one in tone and joke style. I particularly recommend Операция Ы и другие приключения Шурика/Operatsiya Y i drugiye priklyucheniya Shurika, Кавказская пленница, или Новые приключения Шурика/Kavkazskaya plennitsa, ili Novye priklyucheniya Shurika and Спортлото-82/Sportloto-82. These three are all about Shurik’s adventures, and are very similar to Ivan Vasilyevich. I promise, you’ll love them:)

    From his other comedies, I’d also recommend Бриллиантовая рука/Brilliantovaya ruka/The Diamond Arm and 12 стульев/12 stulyev/Twelve Chairs. These aren’t about Shurik, but they’re very entertaining too.
    The Diamond Arm is about diamond smugglers who mistakely hide them in the bandages of an unsuspecting guy’s broken arm and try to get them back, as the police try to get the smugglers, and the poor guy is in the middle of all this.
    Twelve Chairs is quite long and mas many very funny moments, it’s a social parody set in the early days of Soviet Union, and it’s based on a novel by the same title; just be warned this movie has a shocking and not very funny ending.

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2009 by in drama, Entries by Kirsty, Russian Series and tagged , , , , , , .



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