Asatire on Stalinism and Soviet bureaucracy, “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin” was made a decade too late to have political impact. A British-French co-production featuring an all-Russian cast directed by Czech helmer Jiri Menzel, pic is an exemplary East/West European arthouse offering that will probably do limited business theatrically in quality markets.
The story is based on a famous banned Russian novel, written by Vladimir Voinovic in 1969 (just two years after Menzel’s masterful “Closely Watched Trains” won an Oscar for best foreign film.) Voinovic was expelled from the Writers’ Union in 1974 and exiled from the USSR a few years later. In Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, Menzel was banned from filmmaking for five years after his 1969 “Larks on a String.”
“Chonkin” was finally published in Russia in 1989, after the adventure of perestroika. Menzel, too, benefited from the new winds blowing in the East, and won a belated Gold Bear in Berlin for “Larks on a String” in 1990.
Menzel and Voinovic’s common experiences make “Chonkin” a natural fit, even if pic’s tone has a very un-Russian lightness and gentle humor that recalls Menzel’s “My Sweet Little Village.” Ivan Chonkin (Gennady Nazarov) is a doltish soldier, the laughingstock of his company. Assigned to stand guard over a broken airplane in a remote village called Red, he is forgotten by his superiors as World War II breaks out.
A simple soul with a heart of gold and an insatiable appetite for sex, Chonkin shacks up with the town postal clerk, Niura (Zoya Buryak), and the two spend joyous weeks rolling in the hay on her farm. The idyll ends when some jealous neighbors write an anonymous letter denouncing Ivan as a spy. It sets off a very funny chain of misunderstandings, which culminates in a party of NKVD secret service police setting off for Red.
Pic carefully balances comic and tragic tones. While the secretary files her nails, a sadistic NKVD officer tortures innocent citizens chosen at random. He meets his match only once, when he arrests a little Jewish craftsman (Zinovi Gerdt) whose name turns out — providentially — to be Stalin.
But Ivan proves a tough customer, too. Insisting that only a general can relieve him of guard duty, he refuses to be arrested. His blind insubordination leads to a grotesque and quite successful comic finale in which he stymies both the feared secret police and the Soviet war machine.
High-flying fantasy ending, which is not in the book, offers viewers an exhilarating happy ending, and is no more far-fetched than the rest of the tale.