• Ben Keightley

The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) - Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Olga Preobrazhenskaya is probably the first female of Soviet Russia. She has a long career as both an actress and director, and most notably, she worked both before and after the 1917 Revolution, making her somewhat unique. However, little is known about her and much of her directorial work has been lost. This makes The Peasant Women of Ryazan an even more important film and artifact to earlier pioneering female filmmakers.

She first acted in 1913 in Keys to Happiness, directed by her then-husband, Vladimir Gardin. Through the teens, she starred in a range of films for both her husband and other directors, including War and Peae (1915), The Mask of Death (1915), The Lower Depths of St Petersburg (1915) and The Iron Heel (1919). Gardin would go on to form the VGIK, the world's first film school, and Preobrazhenskaya, in the early years of the twentieth century attended the Moscow Art Theatre, which was founded by Konstantin Stanislavski (whose "Method" approach would later bear a huge influence on American directors such as Elia Kazan).

All of this is vital background context to understanding and appreciating the genius that is The Peasant Women of Ryazan. The influence of her husband and Stanislavski, her acting career, directing film both pre and post-revolution, and perhaps most importantly the impact the revolution had on the position of women in society. All of these influences come together to create a film of overwhelming power, humanity, and intimacy. A film that attacks and undermines the old-fashioned traditionalist patriarchal society and highlights the potential for more progressive and independent lives through the differing fortunes of the story two women; Anna (R Pruzhnaya) and Vasilia (Kuzma Yastrebitsky).

The film opens in 1914, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, as Anna, a traditional peasant girl who lives with her aunt falls in love with Ivan, the son of a local, well-to-do farmer, Vasilii. At the same time Vasilia, Vasilii's daughter, has fallen in love with Nicolai. Being traditional Vasilii has plans for arranged marriages for both of his children. Luckily, he has chosen Anna for Ivan, and the couple are overjoyed at being married. Vasilii however has other plans for his daughter, and breaking with Orthodoxy, she rejects her father and begins a romantic relationship with Nikolai facing scorn and gossip from the local villagers.

War breaks out and with the mobilisation of Russia both Ivan and Nikolai are called off to war. Rather than follow the men off to war, the film instead leaps forward to 1918 with both Anna and Vasilia anxiously awaiting news of their lovers. When Nikolai returns he finds the village much changed, and Vasilia's standing much improved. Thanks to the revolution she has been able to convince the local mayor to reappropriate a nearby mansion to set up an orphanage for children whose parents have died during the War and Revolution. Life hasn't been so easy for Anna. In the years since the War, Vasilii's obsession with the young women has grown and she is the victim of terrible punishment at his hands. Raped by Vasilii she has fathered his child and is scorned and ostracised by the village, including her own aunt who disowns her. When Ivan returns the fall from grace in the eyes of the village is complete as he rejects her. In despair she meets a tragic end and Vasilia takes on the child at the orphanage; the two stories neatly tying together for the films climax.

On the surface, the film might feel melodramatic with a rather simplistic plot that could feel like moralising about the role of women in society and their victimisation at the hands of orthodoxy, tradition and the patriarchy. But in the hands of Preobrazhenskaya the story is delicately told, with well rounded characters, a humane view of the world and magnificent performances, particularly from the two female leads. When the film ends the emotion of the story, of the plight of these two women and how their fortunes change; one at the hand of a man, the other at the hands of a nation, is genuinely overwhelming and deeply moving. Through the simplistic plot, Preobrazhenskaya crafts a subtle and beautifully told tale that attacks certain elements of Russian society through these two storylines.

The film is notable as well for its thinly drawn male characters. It comes somewhat as a surprise that once war is declared the film doesn't follow their stories. The Peasant Women of Ryazan feels, in many ways, like other large scale melodramas set against the backdrop of war; Gone with the Wind, The Birth of a Nation, even The Deer Hunter. But unlike those films Preobrazhenskaya is not interested in the conflict between men, beyond the impact it has on the women in the story. The film purposely remains in the village, charting the contrasting trajectories of the women left behind. What's curious is that neither chooses or willfully achieves their respective fates. Both are the consequences of the actions of men. Anna is ruined by the lust of her father-in-law, and is left only with the bastard child he fathered. Even the other women in the house, Anna' mother-in-law (who witnesses the rape) and her aunt disown her - preferring tradition over solidarity with their gender. And Vasilia, who may willfully disrespect and rebel against tradition (and by extension her father) and face the wrath and exclusion from society gains redemption and justification for her earlier transgression due to the actions of men. With the war and Revolution over she benefits from a redrawing of the societal hierarchy and ends up becoming a vital part of this new revolution.

Despite the fates of these women ultimately being in the hands of men, the film is deeply feminist and its strength derives from the emotional truth and honesty, and the surprisingly naturalistic performances from both women (R Prushnaya and Kuzma Ystrebitsky). There is a maturity to their performances that is often hard to find in silent cinema. Thanks to great camerawork and excellent use of the close up we get intimate performances and portraits of these characters. At the other end of the spectrum, the film delivers so breathtaking vistas as of the local village and surrounding farmland. The film also delivers two spectacular sequences; the first being the wedding, which involves large groups and traditional folk dances and celebrations and has an energy and exurberance which is infectious. The second is the final sequence as the village celebrate the end of the war and the return of the men who were sent off to fight. The final sequence is tinged with a sombre tone as the Anna runs through the joyous crowd to her fate.

The Peasant Women of Ryazan encapsulates what I love about discovering new cinema, and specifically exploring silent cinema. The film is a masterpiece and one of the finest examples of early cinema I've ever seen. That it is a deeply humanistic, moral and feminist film from a director I had, until recently, never heard of makes it all the more a treasure and film I strongly recommend is seen by all. There is a rare delight I take when sitting down to watch a new film i've never heard of, and being swept up in the brilliance of the film and transported to a time and place of which I know little.

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