One of the most luscious finds in Locarno’s Soviet retrospective, “A Severe Young Man” is a wild trip into the ’30s avant-garde and its idealistic take on the Revolution. Partly tongue-in-cheek, partly dead serious, pic is like a screwball comedy made by Busby Berkeley about political philosophy.
Given the notoriously humorless nature of Soviet censors, the astonishing thing is not that the film was banned after a few months of release, director Abram Room was kicked out of Ukrainfilm Studio, screenwriter Yuri Olesha (the Odessa novelist who wrote “Envy”) and lenser Yuri Ekelchik were severely reprimanded, and the studio director, production head and assistant studio boss were fired — it’s that it was made in the first place.
With these credentials, it’s a pity the pic, which starts out totally entertaining, abruptly loses steam and has a limp finale that turned off many viewers. It is also not easy to interpret.
Olesha’s script asks what the New Soviet Man, his feelings and social relations, will be like. The heroes are a group of spunky young communists with strong bodies and questioning minds. The anti-heroes are rich, world famous surgeon Dr. Stepanov (Yuri Yurev) and his bootlicking house guest Fyodr (Maksim Straukh), a comically reprehensible member of the new petit bourgeoisie. Bridging the two groups is Stepanov’s lovely wife, Masha (Olga Zhizneva), with whom young Grisha Fokin (Dmitri Dorliak) falls hopelessly in love.
From its startling opening scene of Masha swimming naked in a lake to a hilarious sequence in a gym modeled on ancient Greece, where handsome athletes in togas and loincloths assume classic poses, hurl the discus, drive chariots and discuss philosophy, the filmmakers glorify the body as natural and good.
Pic has the same view of free love, supported by the young communists and exalted in a series of Hollywood-style fantasy sequences featuring Masha and Grisha, complete with romantic out-of-focus photography, huge fake flowers, fountains and grand pianos.
For good measure, helmer Room spoofs slapstick, too, as Grisha’s godlike and barely clad friend Kolya hurls not discuses but cream pies in Fyodr’s face. D.p. Ekelchik makes a major contribution with sardonic cinematography that mocks various cinematic styles.
Pic’s key issue is whether a classless society is possible for the new Soviet man and woman. Grisha’s conclusion is that one must try to equal the best, even when the best are not-nice people like Stepanov, because he nevertheless saves lives.
However, film is never very clear about any of its grand statements, especially when it puts them in the mouths of caricatures like Grisha and the a young communist ideologue, Olga. What the censors objected to most was the questions the film raises about privileges under socialism.