‘Irony’ becomes a holiday tradition

Russian film is annual New Year's Eve choice of TV

MOSCOW– In a rapidly changing world, there are only two certainties this holiday season: Traditional Russian New Year salads will be served, and “The Irony of Fate” will air on television screens Dec. 31, as it has been for more than 30 years.

Viewers consider the Eldar Ryazanov-directed film an integral part of seasonal celebrations. Despite the major political changes that have occurred since 1975, the film’s appeal has remained steady — if anything, the romantic comedy has become even more popular over the last decade.

So why do millions of Russians watch it again and again at year’s end?

“Soviet films articulate a belief in the country, in addition to featuring positive heroes and a happy ending — just like U.S. films,” says Daniil Dondurei, president of Dubl-D cinema research company and editor of cinematic art magazine Iskusstvo Kino.

“Soviet films have considerably more irony than today’s cinema, and a clear sense of genre.”

There’s also a distinct nostalgia factor, reflected in daytime television schedules peppered with such movies.

That makes for a very healthy income stream for Mosfilm, which retained rights to its library.

Rights for all pre-1991 movies remain with studios, rather than producers or directors. In the lean 1990s, film studios sold off broadcasting rights to pics in their libraries in a deal running through to 2017 — a contract they must be rueing today, given that TV ad revenues in Russia are soaring, and contemporary local product is still relatively scarce.

“Irony’s” tale has been embraced by Russians in the way “It’s a Wonderful Life” has cemented its place as a holiday perennial in the hearts of Americans.

“Irony’s” characters, script and plot — like many of Ryazanov’s films — are known to nearly every one of the 141 million Russian citizens (99% of the population have TV sets).

Although the film was done with considerable humor and a touching gentleness, its plot hardly seems the type to merit more than a single viewing.

“Irony” tells the story of hero Zhenya (played by Andrei Myagkov), who has one drink too many at a traditional year-end celebration at a Russian bath and ends up by mistake in an apartment in Leningrad that is identical to his own in Moscow.

That’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. As a result of Soviet central planning, matching apartment blocks and neighborhoods exist all over the country — and his street name, number and even door key are the same.

Zhenya enters what he assumes is his flat and passes out. He is awakened by the apartment’s real occupant, Nadya (Polish actress Barbara Brylska), who is alarmed to find a strange man in her home but, during several comic New Year’s celebration scenes, the two fall in love.

It’s almost addictive viewing, despite a whopping 184-minute original screen version.

Ryzanov, now 80, is thriving. His latest film “Anderson, Life Without Love” came out last year. It was to have been his swan song, but rumor is that he is reconsidering that decision.

Whatever he does next, his most famous film and the New Year in Russia are likely to be inseparable for years to come.

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