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Rodnik dlya zhazhdushchikh (A Spring for the Thirsty)

Posted by martinteller on January 30, 2014

Just after completing work as cinematographer on the lovely Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Yuri Ilyenko made his own debut film.  It concerns an elderly man who lives alone in his ramshackle home in a Ukrainian village.  He tends to a well where villagers and travelers pause for a drink of water.  He prepares for death, building and eventually sleeping in his own coffin.  He sees visions of a young woman, presumably a departed spouse, and seems haunted by the past, turning photographs towards the wall.  His indifferent adult sons come to visit him, but it is his pregnant daughter-in-law that he connects with the most.  The film was completed in 1965 but not released until 1987 under glasnost.  It was reportedly banned for its references to Stalin’s forcing the Ukrainians to chop down their apple orchards, but I imagine the solemn condemnation of the military also played a role.

A couple of months ago I stumbled across someone’s personal top 250 list (I wish I had saved the bookmark, or at least made a note of the author’s name).  Because the list contained many of my favorites, I added several of his picks to my watchlist.  As I watched, for a while I had thoughts that this would be a new favorite for me, perhaps my first truly great discovery of 2014.  It’s deniably an “art film”.  Ilyenko appears to have picked up Paradjanov’s preference for dense symbolism, and the film’s narrative is minimal, making way for enigmatic scenes that challenge the viewer’s sense of time and reality.  The dialogue is minimal as well, although Ilyenko makes excellent use of music and a heightened soundscape, where noises are exaggerated and juxtaposed.  Most striking of all is the photography, a series of poetic images that often employ ultra-high contrast to create dreamlike visions.  A repeated image of a woman standing outside a window, holding out her hand with a giant windmill in the background, is particularly stark and haunting.

Unfortunately, I became less engaged as the short (67 minutes) film continued.  Perhaps my tolerance for “difficult” movies is waning — see my recent review of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, for example.  I became weary of not understanding the significance of certain scenes, or not being able to get a grip on the timeline.  And on the flipside of that, some of the symbolism is too obvious to make much impact, for example the “circle of life” epilogue.  As enchanted as I was with the movie’s aesthetic qualities, artistic sensibility and ambition, I was also disheartened that either the film failed to grab me or I failed to grab it.  Of the five other reviews I could find on the internet, only one is less than glowing (a brief writeup on Criticker that I agree with completely).  So perhaps this other fellow and I are missing out.  It’s an unpleasant feeling for someone who tries to tell himself he’s pretty sophisticated when it comes to cinema appreciation.

I really wanted to love this movie, and for a while I did.  By the end, however, I merely liked it.  Still, I am open to more by Ilyenko, as he has a fantastic eye for compelling, sparse imagery.  Rating: Good (75)


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