A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.