After directing seven films in the U.S., Andrei Konchalovsky makes an inauspicious return to his native Russia with “Ryaba My Chicken,” a forced comedy on the interesting theme of the effects of the new democracy on Russian peasants. Pic will get attention thanks to the director’s name and rep, but the strident tone and sometimes unintentionally risible attempts at comedy will earn it mixed reviews and business at best.
Actually, Konchalovsky is not only returning to Russia here but to his second feature film, the long-banned “Asya’s Happiness,” which he filmed in the small farming community of Bezvodnoye in 1967. Soviet censors banned the film, apparently because the peasants were presented in an overly naturalistic manner and the collective was shown in a negative light (there was also a childbirth scene that offended the blue noses). Pic was not available for screening until the coming of glasnost in the late ’80s.
The new film, shot in the same village, reintroduces the feisty peasant woman Asya, though with a different actress in the role: Inna Churikova is the new Asya (Iya Savinna was the original). But the tone of the new film is almost completely different from the earlier one, which was handled in semi-docu style with many non-pro actors and improvised scenes. This time around, the director goes for comedy to depict the changes of the last couple of years.
Pic starts promisingly with Asya herself explaining, in a long monologue as she trudges along a country road, how democracy is, in her view, not working. (There’s rampant inflation, increased crime, breakdown of authority, and people are generally worse off.) Her ex-husband (a repeat performance by Alexander Surin) now lives with a gypsy and is a hopeless alcoholic, and their son (the baby born in the first film) is now a selfish black-marketeer involved with the Russian mob and the theft of a priceless golden egg from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
For a while, Konchalovsky presents an interesting if depressing and conservative vision of village life. The activities of a local capitalist timber merchant (well played by the late Victor Mikhailkov) upset the locals — noise from his sawmill keeps them awake at night — to the point that they demonstrate against him with pro-Communist banners and photos of past Soviet leaders.
But after a while, fantasy (Asya’s pet chicken starts to talk and grows to giant proportions) and some unfortunate attempts at broad slapstick (a number of speeded-up chase sequences) spoil the mood completely. The ultimate message of the film is that despite the enormous events of the last few years, basically nothing in Russia will change.
Apart from Mikhailkov, performances are on the strident side, and production values are modest. The decision to include a few b&w sequences from “Asya’s Happiness” proves to be a mistake because the lyrical material from the past is so much better than anything in “Ryaba My Chicken” itself.