Review: ‘Old Women’

A tough bunch of peasant women in a remote Russian village finds a family of Central Asian refugees on their doorstep in Gennady Sidorov's slow-starting but ultimately rewarding comedy "Old Women." With a more fetching title, this hymn to cultural tolerance should be able to find its niche with international auds.

A tough bunch of peasant women in a remote Russian village finds a family of Central Asian refugees on their doorstep in Gennady Sidorov’s slow-starting but ultimately rewarding comedy “Old Women.” Besides getting a laugh, these hard-drinking, foul-mouthed crones convey Sidorov’s view of the Russian soul — its deep-seated racism as well as its underlying wisdom and ability to endure. With a more fetching title, this hymn to cultural tolerance should be able to find its niche with international auds. It received top honors at the recent national Russian film fest in Sochi.

In a ramshackle, patched-together village without electricity live a dozen old ladies and Mikolka (Sergei Makarov), a cowherd with Down syndrome. Tale begins with the dignified but unsentimental funeral of one of their number. An army tank rolls by, commanded by a friendly captain (Sidorov) who has sent his soldiers to dig the grave in exchange for some local moonshine. Later, in the film’s best gag, he does the women the favor of shelling an abandoned house they want to use as firewood.

Apart from these rare visitors, the villagers are totally isolated. More is their dismay when a family of Tadjiks fleeing war is unloaded in town and told to make the best of it. While the bearded old grandfather is immediately taken in by one designing lady, the young husband, his pregnant wife and two daughters convert the farmhouse they’ve been assigned into a comfy Oriental den. They immediately arouse suspicion and distrust. Underlining their extraneity to the village, their speech is never translated in the subtitles. The old man’s prayers also irk the Orthodox village ladies. In a moment of mindless hostility, they curse the “Muslim invaders” in front of Mikolka. The next day he silently carries out their expressed wish to burn the strangers’ house down.

The conflagration that follows marks a turning point in the film. Horrified by what they’ve done, the women band together to help the family make a fresh start. Meanwhile, they hide a young soldier who’s gone AWOL after a fling with the captain’s wife. Their cynical outlook on life humorously contrasts with the kind-hearted instincts they seem unable to repress.

Covering all bases on his first feature, actor-director-writer-producer Sidorov gets entangled in some initial doldrums, particularly in the unfunny visit of a histrionic actor and in the tedious recital of a long anti-capitalist poem written by one of the women a la Pushkin. A little cutting here would go a long way. Once the characters are established, however, the film rolls along smoothly.

Played by real peasants in kerchiefs and leggings, the old women look just as exotic to foreign eyes as the colorfully dressed, well-heeled refugees. These picture-perfect Asians end up playing straight man to the Russians’ comic realism, which explodes without warning in a stream of obscene insults. Makarov is well cast in the role of village herald and firebug; one of pic’s few pros, he acts at Moscow’s Theater of Simple Souls.

Tech work is unpretentious but adequate.

Old Women

Russia

Production

A Cinema Support Foundation, Russian Federation Ministry of Culture production. Produced, directed, written by Gennady Sidorov.

Crew

Camera (color), Anatoly Petriga; production designer, Vladimir Yarin; costume designer, Irina Zozulya; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrei Khudyakov. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi - New Directors), Sept. 25, 2003. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Captain - Gennady Sidorov Mikolka - Sergei Makarov
With: Valentina Berezutskaya, Galina Smirnova, Zoya Norkina, Tamara Klimova, Bronislava Zakharova. (Russian and Tadjik dialogue)
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