This is an extract from Pilgrim to the Russian Church, originally published in 1988 by Crossroads Books, New York
Kiev, 22 April 1987: In the afternoon Fr. Boris, Lydia, Volodya and I went to see Pokayaniye (“Repentance”). Last February, in Moscow, I tried to get a ticket to see the film. It was showing in seventeen cinemas around the city but tickets were completely sold out. It was easier to see the Bolshoi Ballet. Tickets were unavailable in Leningrad as well — instead Fr. Boris and I went to the opera. But here Fr. Boris finally succeeded in getting tickets. Even then there were only a few vacant seats in the theater despite the early hour and the fact that it was a weekday. “It’s said that Gorbachev ordered enough copies of the film to be made so that everyone will see it,” Volodya told me. If the rumor is true, Gorbachev must be pleased.
The film, directed by Tengiz Abuladze, was made in 1984 in Georgia, the Soviet Republic where Stalin was born. It ended up on ice with all but a few prints destroyed. That even one print survived is credited mainly to Eduard Shevardnadze, who backed Abuladze in making the movie. At the time Shevardnadze was First Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia. Now he is Foreign Minister of the USSR and one of those most identified with Gorbachev. Following Gorbachev’s election and the subsequent overthrow of the Brezhnev-era old guard in the film-makers’ union, Goskino, the film was finally released.
Ostensibly about the mayor of a Georgian city, Repentance is really about Stalin. The dictator is a parable-like figure named Varlam who not only resembles Stalin but Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon. Varlam is one of those people who, even after death, have a continuing awful presence among the living, becoming objects of veneration to those who are dazzled by cruelty and raw power. Their death is a kind of nap. In one scene we see Varlam/Stalin waking up in a lidless coffin, grinning dangerously at the camera, then rolling over to make himself more comfortable.
After Varlam’s burial his body, black boots and all, keeps re-appearing, propped up in the garden of the family villa. Death seems unable to contain this man responsible for the deaths of millions. The family, who thought they had seen the last of the Great Man, become increasingly distressed and call in the police to put an end to all these undesirable resurrections. A night watch in the cemetery reveals that there is nothing magical about Varlam’s post-mortem mobility. The daughter of two of his victims has been digging up the corpse and is using it to haunt Varlam’s slick, modern, high-living descendants.
The story centers on the parents of the grave-digger. We meet them earlier in their lives, when their daughter was eight or nine. They are a young couple, both artists. In our first glimpse of the couple their faces are lined with apprehension as they watch Varlam give a speech from a balcony facing their home. On a gallows in the background a vulture sits complacently on the cross beam. In the sky, Varlam’s portrait is suspended from a balloon. (In fact there were similar pictures of Stalin decorating the Soviet sky fifty years ago.)
The man has a Christ-like face, the woman looks like Mary and wears a cross. In a prophetic dream suffered by the mother she sees herself and her husband buried in the earth. Only their faces are uncovered, their eyes open and alive.
The couple are trying to save a local church that has been turned into a scientific laboratory — Fr. Boris guessed it was meant to represent the huge Savior Cathedral that once stood across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, now the site of an outdoor swimming pool. The camera slowly explores the peeling frescoes of biblical scenes before it discovers the shining apparatus of high technology that has taken the place of worshippers.
Varlam, flowers in hand, visits the artists’ home and seeks to win their support with an excess of charisma. In fact Stalin occasionally sent flowers to those whom he had added to his death list. Varlam pretends sympathy with their desire to save old buildings, but after his departure, the church is burned and the two artists — first the husband, then the wife — are swallowed up in the gulag. We see the man again when he is dying under torture. As the camera closes in on his suffering face, one realizes that it is also the face of Christ dying on the cross.
There is a heart-rending scene of his wife, warned that she is about to be arrested, trying to escape with her daughter in the dead of night, but grabbed as she steps out the door of their dingy flat.
The couple’s daughter survives. By the time of Varlam’s death, she is devoted to baking cakes modeled as churches, each steeple crowned with a golden baptismal cross such as her mother wore. One of Varlam’s admirers in the film is a curiously stunted man wearing an old soldiers’ uniform who, paying more attention to the newspaper than what he is doing, takes the steeple from one of her edible churches and, cross and all, stuffs it in his mouth. His eyes are held by the headline announcing Varlam’s death.
The film’s images have the brilliant clarity of dreams. In one scene people are waiting in line at a prison gate to deliver letters to relatives. If a letter is accepted, relief floods the face of the person who brought it. But for many the voice behind the gate refuses the letter, saying only, “Left, no forwarding address.” Those who wait know the awful meaning of the words. This is no film-maker’s visualization of nightmares but simply how it was.
In another scene several women are in a muddy timber yard searching the ends of the logs. One fortunate woman finds her husband’s name and, weeping, caresses the rough wood as if it were her husband’s face. Over supper I asked Fr. Boris if this was a dream scene. “It was no dream,” Fr. Boris said. “It was common for people to search among logs for names. Prisoners working in the forests carved their names and dates as a sign that, at least until the date on the log, they were still alive. What you saw happened many times.”
Repentance spans three generations. So little of the terrible truth has reached the third generation that Varlam’s privileged grandson has no idea of the horrors that are buried in the family past. His discovery of them leads him to accuse his father, a powerful man living elegantly in his mansion. “You don’t understand,” the father angrily tells the son, “you don’t know how it was! We did our best!” The boy barricades himself in his room and shoots himself.
His death drives the father to repentance. He goes into the cellar of the house where paintings that had belonged to the murdered young artists are stored. The room is now a kind of chapel illumined by vigil candles. In this setting the paintings resemble icons. Varlam’s son gazes at himself in a cracked mirror and watches his own image dissolve into the face of Varlam leering at him, laughing satanically. The image fades. In the darkness near the mirror a half-visible figure silently raises a fish to his shadowed face — the face of Christ — and eats it. In the darkness, in repentance, there is eucharist and forgiveness.
More than anything else, this is a religious film. In the final scene we see an old lady asking the woman who makes church-like cakes, “Does this street go to the church?” “No, it is Varlam Street — a street named after Varlam can’t lead to a church.” “What good,” asks the old lady, “is a street that doesn’t lead you to a church?” The film ends as we watch this babushka hobbling down the barren street.
Repentance is destined to be seen in many countries but only in the Soviet Union can one see not only the film but the stunned faces of the audience as it files silently out of the theater.
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