Premier Ukrainian helmer Kira Muratova directs a trio of tales by as many writers in "Three Stories," an uneven showcase for her stylish modernity and grotesque black humor. When the material works, it is both shocking and enjoyable, viciously trashing human relationships with a few incisive cuts. A Berlin Silver Bear winner in 1990 for "The Asthenic Syndrome," Muratova remains one of the most watchable ex-Soviet directors. Pic should have scattered sales to specialized distribs amid a whirl of fest rounds. Viewers have to stick out a weak opening episode, the stagy "Boiler Room No. 6," based on a story by Evgenij Golubenko, the film's art director. A man who lives in the hell of a communal apartment has quarreled with a beautiful young neighbor and killed her. He drags the corpse to a chatterbox poet friend who has a job stoking the furnace in a boiler room, hoping he'll dispose of the evidence. Lensed in chilly blue tones on a single basement set, played by excited actors who scream their lines hysterically, it feels like a bad night at a Moscow theater.

Things liven up in the second episode, “Ophelia,” penned by Renata Litvinova, who plays the main role. As Ofa, a Jean Harlow-blond femme fatale who works in a maternity hospital, she gains access to a Kafkaesque room where all the mothers in town who have given up their babies for adoption are on file. Ofa herself was one of these abandoned kids, and now she’s out for revenge. First she casually strangles a spacey young mother, then pushes her own heartless mom off a dock. The whole story has an amusing, surreal tone, aided by deadpan perfs from an excellent cast.

In the small-scale “The Maiden and Death,” from a story written by helmer Muratova, an adorable little girl (Lilja Murlykina) gets mad at her kindly grandfather (Oleg Tabakov), who is baby-sitting her from a wheelchair. Tired of taking no for an answer, she fills his tea with rat poison and waits for the results.

Everyday cruelty and unchecked madness, in a world where little value is placed on human life, form the common denominator of these amoral tales, told with Muratova’s sophisticated brand of black comedy. The last two have a tongue-in-cheek smartness a New Yorker would appreciate, and a bottom-line desperation that could only originate in the CIS.

Tech work appears particularly striking only in “Ophelia,” where cinematographer Genadij Karjuk uses bright, bleached-out lensing to bring out the whites of Golubenko’s modernist set design (paradoxical considering the blackness of Ofa’s character), to surreal effect.

Three Stories

Russian - Ukrainian

Production

Produced by Igor Tolstunov for NTV-Profit (Moscow)/Odessaer Filmstudio (Odessa)/Kulturministerium der Ukraine (Kiev). (International sales: NTV-Profit.) Directed by Kira Muratova. BOILER ROOM NO. 6 Screenplay, Igor Boshko, based on a story by Evgenij Golubenko. OPHELIA Screenplay, Renata Litvinova. THE MAIDEN AND DEATH Screenplay, Vera Storosheva, based on a story by Kira Muratova.

Crew

Camera (color), Genadij Karjuk; editor, Valentina Olejnik; production design, Evgenij Golubenko; costumes, Alena Stepanova. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 19, 1997. Running time: 114 MIN. BOILER ROOM NO. 6 Running time: 25 MIN. OPHELIA Running time: 55 MIN. THE MAIDEN AND DEATH Running time: 34 MIN.

With

BOILER ROOM NO. 6 With: Sergej Makoveckij, Leonid Kuschnir, Jean Daniel. OPHELIA With: Renata Litvinova, Natalja Buzko, Aleksandra Svenskaja, Ivan Ochlobystin. THE MAIDEN AND DEATH With: Oleg Tabakov, Lilja Murlykina.
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