By The Bluest Of Seas (U samogo sinego morya)
Russia (1936) Dir. Boris Barnet
Films produced by the Soviet Union, especially in the post revolution days, were often burdened with the heavy political themes and messages to impart, either by design to reflect the upheaval of the country, or pressure from Stalinist control. This obviously led to some classic and seminal films being made but not every director allowed this remit to dictate their works and some were clever enough to subvert it.
This second sound film from Boris Barnet is such a film, espousing the wonders of communism in what is in fact a lighthearted comedy drama. It’s a rather simple tale – two sailors, Alyosha (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and Yussuf (Lev Sverdlin), are shipwrecked in the Caspian Sea and are washed up near a small island in Soviet Azerbaijan which is small fishing community. Both men fall for the female team leader Mariya (Yelena Kuzmina) which threatens to have ramifications for the island as a whole.
How a simple love triangle throw an entire island into turmoil? Well, this is how Barnet cleverly weaves the communist angle into the story. Because the island is a self-fulfilling community who share everything – the name of their main fishing boat is the “Light of Communism” (referred to hereafter as LOC) after all – and because of their skills, Alyosha and Yussuf are put to work, the former being a mechanic.
One day Alyosha feigns illness to get out of work so he can sneak off to the city and buy some gifts to impress Mariya, but this means not fixing the LOC so the other have to use a smaller boat instead. The knock-on effect is that the daily fish haul is five times less than the usual tally which is a disappointment, not to mention Alyosha’s deception and selfishness which puts him in the doghouse.
So having established that communism has its flaws after all, we can get onto the meat of the story which is the two friends falling out over a girl, an age old premise but which is given a distinctly unique treatment from Barnet. With a run time of just 68 minutes there is little time for hanging about in getting into the story so Barnet cuts out all the time consuming foreplay of getting to know each other, flirting, and all that and condenses the entire attraction from both – actually all three – parties to a single beaming smile which says everything.
Both men are not shy in coming forward with their competitive interest in Mariya while she herself seems to welcome the attention although an air of ambiguity about her feelings is rather pervasive, which is resolved in the final act. It has to be said the convivial way in which Mariya responds to these advances and the lack of interference from the other islanders makes one wonder if the sharing philosophy of communism is about to be taken too far but thankfully this isn’t that kind of film!
Communist propaganda aside, this film offers much more for the cineaste as Barnet was a filmmaker of great vision, influencing the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky. Visually there are comparisons to be made with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante at least on the marine front, both creating poetic and symbolic scenes of wonder with just movements of the sea. The opening shot of this film shows the turbulent waters raging and seagulls fleeing against a setting sun, saving much time and money in showing a real shipwreck. It’s simple but it works.
Later scenes out at sea as the LOC navigates the choppy waters are innovative for their time and meagre budget yet fully convey the danger of their mission. For internal and close-up shots of the crew, Barnet and cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov use a series of crooked and other interesting angles to relate the lack of space and sense of unsteadiness as the about rocks about.
As much as this innovation and visual splendour is a treat for our eyes, Barnet is still beholden to his old filmmaking habits of the silent days, as the internal scenes demonstrate. Very stagey in the direction and with minimal dialogue or movement they often lack the dynamism of the external scenes and the use of quick cutaways suggests Barnet was essentially learning on the job as far as working with sound, a problem that plagued many films before overhead boom mics were invented.
Another curious aspect of this film is the habit the principal players have of bursting into song. This is not in the sense of say Singin’ In The Rain et al, but we are treated to random verses of exposition and unburdening of feelings here and there which should feel incongruous but amazingly doesn’t. It certainly adds a little levity to the mood along with understated slivers of humour.
To enhance the dramatic moments Barnet falls back on his silent filmmaking techniques, killing the soundtrack completely and often slowing the speed to allow a certain image to resonate for maximum impact. A key example of this comes when Alyosha is hauled before the community to explain his faux illness and the pearl necklace he gave Mariya breaks, each pearl slowly falling to the ground, a symbol of both her tears and the broken bond between Alyosha and the others.
It’s a little hard to rate the performances as the script is rather schizophrenic in its mood and tone, but the characters are well defined, despite the obvious lack of depth in their backgrounds. The two men are often portrayed largely as comic foils for both Mariya and each other while she is something of a closed book as far as being able to determine her true personality.
As this is my first exposure to Boris Barnet I am not sure what to think. By The Bluest Of Seas is a quirky film which is as accessible as it is beguiling, and while it doesn’t possess that knockout punch to it, one cannot fail to be charmed by it.