Having abandoned directing for 30 years, exasperated by Soviet censorship, vet Russian helmer Andrey Smirnov returns with “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman,” an ambitious, 156-minute epic replay of the Russian Revolution as seen through the googly eyes of a peasant who makes up in survival skills what she lacks in brainpower. If fellow returnee Alexi German’s “Krustalyov, My Car!” (1998) spilled over with 12 years’ worth of enthusiastic cinematic ideas, “Once” teems with 30 years of misanthropic, near-apocalyptic bitterness. Strikingly pictorial, fest-friendly but mean-spirited auteur curio will probably not find distribution outside Eastern Europe.
Smirnov’s saga spans the period of 1909-23 in Tambov, the heart of the bloody peasant revolt of 1920-21 against collectivization. It depicts a time as superstitious, venal and brutal as were the Middle Ages in Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” to which “Once” will likely be unflatteringly compared.
Smirnov’s heroine, Varvara (Darya Yakamasova), suffers through more than her share of beatings, rapes and assorted indignities at the hands of relatives (she’s whipped ferociously by her father-in-law when a horse under her care falls sick), husbands (four, at last count), marauding soldiers and complete strangers. Pic is divided into two parts, the first section a study in limited consciousness that juxtaposes Varvara’s uncomprehending, slack-jawed stare with the larger historical forces playing out around her. In the second part, that tension no longer fuels the narrative as she begins to interact, like a childless Mother Courage carving out her corner of exploitation within the political morass of post-revolutionary Russia.
While the Bolsheviks are obviously cast as archvillains, their impossible, starvation-inducing grain levies and church desecrations driving the peasants to revolt, Smirnov makes little distinction between the natural bestiality of the peasant class and the ideological cruelty of the revolution, as rapaciousness, superstition, envy and sadism overtake the Russian psyche. Smirnov then concocts a flood of biblical proportions to wipe out the Bolsheviks in a tumultuous wave of historical revisionism more radical than anything Stalin ever dreamt of.
Except for the compositional mastery evident throughout, it is nearly impossible to reconcile the luminous fragility of the little girl in Smirnov’s “Angel” (1967), the war-forged camaraderie in his “Belarus Station” (1973) or the lovers’ rueful nostalgia in his “Autumn” (1974) with this ferocious litany decrying man’s inhumanity to man.