Andrew Horton, Michael Brashinsky

... Aleksandr Kaydanovsky's The Kerosene Seller's Wife (Zhena kerosinschika, 1989) moves us beyond the level of documentary fiction and into the realm of a darkly etched allegory of the bizarre. Based on his own script, Kaydanovsky's film turns history into a collage of Christian and Greco-Western myth to create a nightmarish (re)vision of the Stalinist period.

Clearly, something of a new "Leningrad school" has emerged under glasnost as a number of talented young directors, such as Kaydanovsky, Oleg Teptzov (Mr. Designer [Gospodin oformitel], 1989), Sergei Selyanov and Nikolai Makarov (The Name Day [Den anghela], 1988), Valery Ogorodnikov (Prishvin's Paper Eyes [Bumazhnye glaza Prishvina], 1989), and Sergei Ovcharov (It [Ono], 1989], have forsaken realist cinema in any classical mode – Hollywood or otherwise – in favor of producing highly personal visions expressed in allegorical, satirical, surrealistic, and, as Anna Lawton has noted, "grotesque" forms (Soviet Cinema Four Years Later). These directors are in a direct line with the "cinema of the prophets" practiced by Tarkovsky.

The Kerosene Seller's Wife concerns the cold winter of 1953. The year Stalin died is represented in this surrealistic tale through a Cain-and-Abel fable of twin brothers (both played by Aleksandr Baluyev) and one woman. To outline the story would be difficult at best, given the convoluted narrative. But what is significant in this recasting of the past is the framing of the times as a Christian (Roman Catholic as well as Orthodox) allegory. "Victory is the refuge of the scoundrel," intones a priest. The apparent victor is Cain, the "successful" brother, a Communist official of high rank who, in his quest for power, committed a crime for which his brother took the blame and suffered every imaginable disgrace, ending up as a kerosene seller. The kerosene salesman appears to be a "holy fool" (yurodivy) because of his unjust suffering and stoic resistance to political and social forces. As such, he is the bridge between the bizarre reality of Stalinist Russia and the surrealist intrusion of visions throughout the film.

Christian symbolism and tradition permeate the film. Images of dead angels, "magical" happenings, and grotesque events (at one point the Communist brother's face bloats, expands and explodes, as in David Kronenberg's films) push toward transcendence, only to find history to be a nightmare from which the protagonists cannot escape. "I'm convinced that without hope for a miracle," the priest says near the end, "life would become a sad reality."

Overall, like many glasnost films concerned with the past, The Kerosene Seller's Wife proved too ambitious, too self-indulgent, to reach more than a small following of critics and viewers. Brecht believed in the "alienation effect" of drama, and yet the truth is that his Mother Courage, for instance, is a sympathetic and heroic woman, and that The Threepenny Opera engages its viewers at the same time as they are forced to rethink history and politics. The deluge of dark images, disconnected and enigmatic, in films such as Kaydanovsky's work alienate without first engaging, thus leaving those in the audience bewildered and depressed.

For there are no miracles to save this holy fool in Kaydanovsky's tale. At the film's end, the Communist brother leaps to his death in a freezing river, shouting "long live Marxism-Leninism," while another character remains in an insane asylum surrounded by idiots. That Kaydanovsky's camera roams over the faces of these real-life victims leaves us uneasy and disturbed. Once again the line between documentary and fiction has been shifted. It is one thing to read of such dark scenes in novels by Dostoyevsky (whose elaborate psychological nightmares mixed with Russian Orthodox imagery this film resembles) and quite another to be confronted with the immediacy of images of real idiots smiling their unknowing smiles to a searching, intruding camera. Dostoyevsky at least had a narrator through whom to filter the images of "reality" he presented.

A hymn plays over these images as the film nears its end. Is this music a kind of hope or merely juxtaposition? Kaydanovsky leaves it to us to decide. The final image is of the kerosene salesman alone, having lost everything, including his wife, pounding exploding caps with a brick and making warlike explosions with his voice, seemingly oblivious to the church bells pealing. From whose point of view has the film been told? Perhaps it is a tale told by the holy fool himself; after all, even in his silence at the end, he is outside the asylum, though locked in his own memories of the violence and betrayal that have been his history and that of millions like him. ...