Centered on a family eking out a meager living on a Russian collective farm in 1950, “The Harvest Time” manages with spare, luminous visuals and oblique storytelling to avoid wallowing in sentimental nostalgia for a lost Soviet past, while still celebrating the era’s simpler pleasures. Jettisoning the humor associated with her earlier docus, helmer Marina Razbezhkina, making her fiction debut here, raises a crop of hearty naturalistic perfs from her mostly non-pro cast. Pic harvested critics’ top prize at Moscow, and will replant easily into more fests and upmarket TV slots.
Almost entirely dialogue free, except for some singing, pic uses a wistful, slightly too intrusive voiceover by an unseen narrator in the present to explain what’s going on. Indicating that one of two young boys (Dima Yakovlev and Dima Ermakov) seen on screen is him back in 1950, the narrator explains how for years his mother Antonina Guseva’s (Ludmila Motornaya) only two wishes were for a bolt of calico cloth and for her husband Genady (Vyacheslav Batrakov) to come back alive from the war.
The second wish is granted, but with a cruel twist: Genady returns from combat with both legs amputated from the hips down. Still, he manages to push himself around the house on a makeshift flatbed trolley, even doing circus tricks for the kids amusement in a sequence that recalls moments in Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” Plus, he can still go through vodka faster than Antonina can earn money on the collective farm to buy it.
Although she never gets her calico, Antonina is awarded a crimson velvet banner, fringed in gold tassels, by the State for being the best combine driver of the harvest. But mice soon nibble the banner, and Antonina begins a lifelong Sisyphean task of mending the symbol of this one moment of joy and social recognition.
A final enigmatic scene shows a completely new young woman (unnamed in the narration) overseeing what’s left of the Gusev family’s possessions being thrown out of an urban apartment: The banner is now barely big enough to make a headscarf. How the objects got there is never explained, although the narrator reveals he is telling this story from beyond the grave.
One might expect from the above description that the bulk of the film’s visual style would mimic the low-angled, sun-drenched heroic poses of the now much-ridiculed “tractor films” of the Soviet era. But Razbezhkina has no mockery in mind, and while lenser Irina Uralyskaya’s lighting casts halos round the fair-haired cast, the effect is more painterly, somewhat reminiscent of the cinematic poetry of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 classic “Earth” or Andrei Tarkovsky 1975 “Mirror,” if not quite in those masters’ league. Numerous evocative shots pick out life’s little bits of set dressing, like a bowl of seeds on a table or a child’s wooden toy.
Meanwhile, for many Western arthouse viewers, the abundant shots of dust motes floating through shafts of light, a cappella singing, and sense of looming melancholy will instantly recall the work of Blighty helmer Terence Davies, whose earlier features (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”) similarly focused on dysfunctional, impoverished families. However, where Davies will unfurl a single shot for minutes, Razbezhkina sticks to a more aud-friendly sense of pacing. Given how little actually happens in “Harvest Time,” the barely-over-an-hour running time ends up feeling just right.
Rest of tech credits are efficiently rendered, with sound sadly in mono only for projection caught. For the record, pic comes in a nearly square Academy ratio, presumably a legacy of its origins as a TV-financed project.