Slavic drollery and a Dickensian glance at the modern soul are the hallmarks of vet helmer Kira Muratova’s “Melody for a Street Organ,” a pageant of piquant politics, social and economic allegories, Christmas, gluttony and orphans. Likely too ironic, obscure and ethnically specific for much crossover action, “Melody” will thrive on the festival circuit and, as at the recent Toronto Film Festival, cities with large Ukrainian expat communities.
Alyona and Nikita, 10 and 8, respectively, have lost their mother and are on a train to the city in search of their fathers, one of whom was last heard from working at the Kiev station. The train itself is a carnival sideshow, a small-scale Brueghelian tableau, and a display of earthy humanity that’s clearly dear to Muratova, who serves it up in funny and understated ways (people who look like Tod Browning escapees, for instance, occupy a car where a voluble character hawks “Slaughter of the Innocents” holiday cards).
Once the children leave the train, they’re caught up in a bad dream of cruel adulthood, juvenile criminality, avarice, dishonesty, shoplifting and whoredom. Morality has been abolished, along with the old regimes; conscience is obsolete. Muratova isn’t specifically calling for a return to communism, but what’s been left in its wake incurs her considerable wrath.
The children aren’t cherubs; although neither seems to have ever missed a meal, they will certainly do so in the city. They are sleepless, exhausted and badly dressed. Their inability to find anywhere to sleep makes them dark-eyed and pasty-looking; the poverty of kindness they meet at every turn — from the lazy station workers who won’t page their father, to the street kids who rob them, to the supermarket security force that persecutes Alyona for stealing bread — wears the pair down. That they aren’t adorable children is Muratova’s point; their vulnerable humanity should itself be a passport to food and shelter, and yet they are tossed out of every commercial establishment whose threshold they cross. Fortunately, Muratova has a knack for tossing something absurd and hilarious into the mix just when it seems things can’t get any worse.
With uninflected lighting and a flat but garish palette, the film is stagy (the acting is broad and aimed at the balcony) without being stage-bound: D.p. Volodymyr Pankov has a fluid way with the camera, although no one would accuse Muratova of being overly concerned with visual grandeur. Her metier is social. Epic in length (the better part of three hours) and unhurriedly on its way to completing a grim portrait of a people, “Melody for a Street Organ” is demanding, but accomplished.
Production values are static but appropriate to the fable-like nature of the film.