The Stone Flower (A Legend from the Urals)

[Каменный Цветок (Уральский Сказ)]

Soviet Union. 1946. 83 min. Color
Directed: Aleksandr Ptushko
Written: Pavel Bazhov, Ivan Keller
Cinematography: Fedor Provorov
Music: Lev Shvarts
With Vladimir Druzhnikov, Tamara Makarova, Mikhail Troianovskii, Ekaterina Derevshchikova, and Aleksei Kelberer

One of the first color films produced in the Soviet Union, The Stone Flower has—less literally than figuratively—preserved the freshness of its colors. If one were to glance at its production date only, expectations of high aesthetic merit would have to be laid aside. 1946 announced the beginning of what is certainly the grimmest era in Soviet culture, marked by an unprecedented level of intolerance toward artistic "deviations." The policing of culture during the Zhdanov years (1946-1948), brought into existence a tradition of aesthetic practices known as the "varnishing of reality": art was asked to represent the world by refracting it through the prism of "what ought to be." After Stalin's much quoted words, "We were born to make the fairy tale come true," the old genre was to become much more than that: it was to signify a mode of apprehending reality.

The Stone Flower is, in many ways, Ptushko's attempt to answer the question implied by Stalin words: "How can you tell a fairy tale in a present-day world that pretends to be one?" Part of the answer is contained in the film's subtitle, where the ambiguous designation "skaz" has replaced the expected "skazka." And indeed, The Stone Flower is a sui generis fairy tale, at best. The story it presents violates one of the canonical parameters of the genre: the undeterminateness of temporal and spatial coordinates. Based on Pavel Bazhov's tale "The Malachite Box," the film takes us to an identifiable place and time: the Ural mountains at the end of the 19th century. The plot, interlacing as it does historical reality and fantasy, is centered on the conflict between the demands of life and art. The figurative oppositions between the living and the dead, the flower and the stone, allow the terms of this conflict to be worked into the fabric of the fairy-tale narrative. The story of Danila the Master and his fantastic sojourn in the Copper Mountain is placed against a historical background, in which we find clearly drawn the lines of class antagonism: on one side—the capitalist-barin, on the other—the oppressed peasants. As the narrative unfolds, however, Ptushko seems ever less inclined to uphold this—quite unwarranted—concession to "ideologically engaged" storytelling. Instead, he prefers to lend the camera eye to an almost ethnographic reconstruction of peasant life and custom, and it is here that his film is at its most successful. Humor and a degree of self-conscious theatricality allow it to avoid the kind of stultified depictions of "traditional Russia" we find in so many Soviet films. The colloquial peasant speech we hear from the screen accounts for much of the charm The Stone Flower still exudes. The same cannot be said of the special effects and ostentatious stage designs: more than half a century after the film's production, they seem, at best, rudimentary.

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