The St. Petersburg Times
Kirill Galetski

Ivan Bunin might seem like a difficult choice for the subject of a biopic, but then Aleksei Uchitel's new film His Wife's Diary is not a straightforward docudrama. It contains elements of artistic license in its exploration of the author's private life, and as the title suggests, it is told from his wife's point of view.

Bunin is a revered figure in Russian literature. His prose is considered to be some of the most intricate and detailed in the Russian language. Most notable is his 1911 novella Dry Valley (Sukho dol), which evokes the tragic gradual degradation of Old Russia. His attitudes toward Russia were appropriately complex. He was nostalgic for pre-20th-century Russia, yet was repelled by repressive aspects of Russian society. He also hated Bolshevism with a passion and emigrated to France while it was still possible. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933, the first Russian writer to do so. Uchitel's film touches upon these themes. It provides us with an intriguing speculative portrait of the man where no completely accurate picture is available, since Bunin forbade making his memoirs public.

Andrei Smirnov's Bunin is a tortured, vulnerable soul. The film infers that his outward talent and intelligence are only matched by his volatile character and passions. Smirnov did not look to be cast as Bunin – instead of finding the role, it seems the role found him. Uchitel went through many options before settling on Smirnov. When the film was still being negotiated as a Russian-French co-production through Gaumont studios, the French team even made the ridiculous suggestion that Bunin should be played by Omar Sharif. In hindsight, Uchitel feels that no one else could have pulled off the role with as much craft as Smirnov.

The women in the film are phenomena all to themselves. Olga Budina plays Galina Plotnikova, Bunin's illicit love. Her character is actually an amalgamation of three real-life women. Galina Tiunina as Vera Nikolayevna arouses empathy as the long-suffering yet emotionally supple wife. Yelena Morozova, recently touted by a fashion magazine as one of a young generation of future stars, is sultry as Marga Kovtun, the lesbian seductress who woos Galina away from Bunin. The film is incredibly balanced and, in a curious way, very light. This seems contradictory given the nature of the story, but it works. The production values are strong, with elegant costuming, attention to period detail, tight editing, rich cinematography by Yury Klimenko and an appropriately subdued soundtrack by Leonid Desyatnkov. The film's budget was more than the average Russian film, according to Uchitel.

Uchitel is a director with a mostly documentary background, mostly covering progressive movements in art. His 1988 film Rock, which is eponymous to his studio, is a seminal record of the development of the St. Petersburg rock music scene. Mitkis in Europe was a chronicle of the Mitki-VKHUTEMAS art collective's international adventures. His first fictional feature film was Giselle's Mania, which featured some of the same cast members as His Wife's Diary.

The film is also attracting an impressive degree of international attention, having been shown at the San Francisco Film Festival. Even director George Lucas of Star Wars fame expressed his appreciation of the film. Moreover, the film has been nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. There are more screenings planned in New York, Washington D.C. and Seattle.

"People can be familiar with Bunin," asserts Uchitel, "but it is impossible to fully understand his work without looking at his life."