A welcome ‘Irony’

Comedy becomes Russian year-end staple

MOSCOW — Come Friday, Russian TV audiences will be sitting down to enjoy one of their favorite films, “Irony of Fate, or Have a Good Sauna!” — just as they have done every New Year’s Eve for more than 20 years.

Eldar Ryazanov’s classic fairy tale has achieved cult status with local viewers, who treat it as an integral part of seasonal celebrations.

Despite changes in political regimes since its release in 1975, the film’s appeal has remained unchanged — if anything, it’s become even more popular over the last decade.

Pic’s characters, songs, script and plot are known to almost every Russian citizen.

“Irony of Fate” concerns Zhenya Lukashin (Andrei Myakhov), who, after a glass too many at a traditional year-end reunion at the baths with friends, ends up in Leningrad rather than at home in Moscow.

There, by a quirk very characteristic of the Soviet system, he reaches what he assumes is his flat and passes out. He’s woken by its real occupant, played by Polish actress Barbara Brylskaya, who’s initially alarmed to find a strange man in her home. After plenty of comic scenes over the New Year celebrations, the two eventually fall in love.

Though its played with considerable humor and a touching naivete, the plot might hardly seem strong enough to merit more than a second viewing. So why do millions of Russians return to it again and again?

“The popularity of Soviet films is much greater than that of any other kind of cinema,” said Daniil Dondurei, chief editor of Film Art magazine.

Research conducted recently by Dondurei confirmed this assertion. He polled 2,500 people in three cities; respondents were asked to rate — on a scale of one to 10 — their preferences for four categories of cinema: American, European, Soviet and post-1991 Russian films.

Soviet film received a resounding 8.1 score, followed by American film at 4.9, European at 4.5 and “New Russian” at 4 points. Nor did results vary appreciably either for age group or from prosperous Moscow to the much poorer town of Voronezh.

“Soviet films articulated a belief in the country, and had positive heroes and a happy ending. They have considerably more irony than today’s cinema, and a clear sense of genre. The comic skazka, or fairy tale, was always the very top box office success. It seems that today’s Russian directors must learn to shoot a new kind of Soviet cinema,” Dondurei said.

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