Where to begin with Kira Muratova

As two of her greatest films arrive on Blu-ray, we plot a beginner’s path through the audacious, discomfiting cinema of Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova.

Three Stories (1997)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Kira Muratova, who died in 2018, has only now come to be recognised as one of eastern Europe’s greatest directors, after decades under the radar. Soviet censors saw her work as elitist in its experimentation and nihilistic in depicting society as a madhouse, and restricted it from the public. Arthouse canon tastemaker biases kept this hard-to-classify female outlier sidelined. Abrasive, asymmetrical and repetition-based, with a taste for the absurd and grotesque, Muratova’s films are no easy ride – but they are audacious, distinctive and visionary.

Kira Muratova in Brief Encounters (1967)StudioCanal

Muratova’s origins, like her films, defy straightforward reduction. She was born in 1934 in the city of Soroca (then Romania, and now Moldova), to a Romanian-Jewish mother and a Russian father. After graduating from Moscow film school VGIK, she moved away from the Soviet power centre of Moscow, taking up a director position at the Odesa Film Studio. She lived and made Russian-language films in the Ukrainian port city for much of her life (keeping the surname Muratova after a brief marriage to fellow director Oleksandr Muratov, her studio colleague.)

In an eclectic oeuvre of over 20 films spanning more than half a century, The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) is her best-known and arguably greatest masterpiece. It emerged from a phase of more unbridled creativity made possible by the new cultural openness of the late 80s. It was awarded at the Berlinale, but its in-your-face rule-breaking (replete with cursed obscenities, and full-frontal male nudity) and black-humoured dissection of moral bankruptcy proved too much even for Perestroika. It was the only film banned under Gorbachev – which sums up her maverick impulse never to make nice, when she could provoke discomfort.

The best place to start – The Asthenic Syndrome

At 153 minutes long, The Asthenic Syndrome is a particularly sustained, sprawling assault of Muratovian mockery and outrageousness, but a wild plunge with no compass is the best way to enter her world on its own terms. It’s made up of multiple reality layers (there is a film within the film), over-the-top outbursts and bizarre digressions, first in black and white and then in colour. 

The Asthenic Syndrome (1989)

Natasha (Olga Antonova), a doctor, is grappling with the death of her husband, with a surly kind of grief that drives her to slap people in the street. Meanwhile, Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a school teacher, is gripped by a condition that sends him to sleep without warning. When he’s out cold on a metro station floor, a crowd rushes over him, oblivious. In Muratova’s caustic vision, alienated citizens veer between aggression and passivity, not finding solace in togetherness, or hitting on a means to navigate a preposterous universe in which mortality is the only inevitability.  

Death and irregularity also underpin Three Stories (1997), which combines three novellas about unexpected killings into a visceral and savage, yet tongue-in-cheek, take on a modern society in which life is cheap, and there is plenty to push the seemingly benign to snap. Unbearable communal apartment dwellers, a vengeful maternity ward archivist, and a little girl hellbent on a poisoning plot are all in the murderous mix in this surreal, boundary-decimating riot. “I would give this planet a zero,” is its most-quoted line, summing up a collapsed idealism that has opened floodgates to all manner of extravagant infamy.

What to watch next

After co-directing two films with then-husband Muratov, By the Steep Ravine (1962) and Our Honest Bread (1964), Muratova directed her first features as a solo director, Brief Encounters (1967) and The Long Farewell (1971). They are less brazen and radical than her later sardonic mosaics, but even these alarmed Soviet censors, who wanted optimistic plots with straightforward messaging. Departing from mandated socialist realism to dip into the dreamlike and unorthodox, they explored the more chaotic, disharmonious aspects of relationships and desires.

The Long Farewell (1971)StudioCanal

Brief Encounters (1967) is a film of irregular compositions, flashbacks and female perspectives, with a free-spiritedness echoing the French New Wave. Muratova stars as Valentina, a city planner in Odesa. Fed up with household chores, she takes on out-of-towner Nadia (Nina Ruslanova) to help, unaware that the younger woman has had a fling with her restless geologist husband Maksim (famed folk singer Vladimir Vysotsky), and is infatuated with him.

Another complicated triangle is at the heart of The Long Farewell (1971). Yevgenia (Zinaida Sharko) is a translator struggling with growing alienation from her son Sasha (Oleg Vladimirsky), who has decided he would prefer to live with his father in Novosibirsk. As a spiky psychodrama of aching disillusionment and family dysfunction exploring a troubled woman’s inner world through fluid invention, it met with the authorities’ stern disapproval, and was shelved until 1987.

Where not to start

Censorship battles were sometimes impossible to win. Muratova was so upset with edits made without her consent to Among Grey Stones (1983), based on a story by Vladimir Korolenko about his childhood and grief, that she officially renounced it, and it was released under the fictional Russian everyman name Ivan Sidorov.

Getting to Know the Big, Wide World (1978)

A number of Muratova’s films ostensibly adhere to a Soviet-approved worldview, but her vivid, expansive imagination bursts beyond such ideological framework. An ethos of communal production determines the mud-and-cement setting of Getting to Know the Big, Wide World (1980), which Muratova frequently referred to as her favourite of her own works. An unconventional love triangle between plasterer Lyuba (Nina Ruslanova) and two truck drivers plays out on a tractor factory construction site. “Nobody has invented anything better than love,” a worker muses, in celebration of this buoyant emotional phenomenon outside mass manufacturing. 

Muratova continued making movies well into her seventies, often focused on women and children as transgressive forces. In her penultimate film, the dark, fable-like Melody for a Street-Organ (2009), two orphaned siblings, Alyona and Nikita, take a train to search for their father at Christmas. The streets of snowy Kyiv are a melancholy carnival, populated by grotesquely strange and predatory adults. They are the face of a gluttonous, grasping consumerism run rampant after the transition to capitalism, and its myriad new forms of hell. 

4K restorations of Brief Encounters and The Long Farewell are out on StudioCanal Blu-ray, DVD and digital from 18 September.

A selection of Kira Muratova films are available to stream on Klassiki.

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