Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ring in the New Year With The Irony of Fate

In North America we have It's a Wonderful Life, a film shown every year at Christmastime, deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. Last year, I discovered that Russians have their own version of It's a Wonderful Life, which is broadcast throughout the former USSR and Soviet bloc countries.

The Irony of Fate (Ironiya sudby) is an absolute gem of a film that I can't recommend strongly enough.

Its full title is Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom! - The Irony of Fate, or With Light Steam! In fact, Russians generally refer to the film by the latter name, With Light Steam. This refers to the central plot device that sets the farce in motion, the Russian New Year's tradition of a group of male friends to meet at a bath house for a ritual cleansing in honor of the year to come. Because the bath house serves alcohol like a men's club, the Russian play on words calling intoxication 'lightly steamed' links the bath house/drunken state/film all together.

I discovered the film through a chain of serendipity.

Several years ago I was completely blown away by the urban paranormal films Night Watch(Nochnoy dozor) and Day Watch(Dnevnoy dozor), directed by Timur Bekmambetov. I completely fell for the lead actor, Konstantin Khabensky.

So while surfing through You Tube looking for clips featuring Konstantin, I noticed a Christmasey film directed by Bekmambetov with Konstantin in it, which I watched and was immediately swept into something that utterly enchanted me.

I dug deeper, and realized that this film I'd unearthed - The Irony of Fate 2 - was the sequel to an original cherished holiday film watched every year by Russians for the past 30 years.

Luckily, a You Tube user had posted the entire original film, so my husband and I settled down last New Year's Eve to do what Russians around the world were doing, and watched The Irony of Fate. We'll be doing it again this year, because once the charm of this story envelopes you, you can never let it go.

Once I started watching, I realized that what appeared to be Christmas decorations were really New Year's decorations. For Russians, their New Year's celebration is like Christmas, New Year's and Valentine's Day all rolled into one. It's very romantic to be proposed to at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve - and therein lies the major set of domino-catastrophes that drives the comedy on its zigzag path towards a compelling romantic drama.

When I looked at user reviews for the film at IMDB and Amazon, I was moved by how strongly they also felt about it:

"This is a New Year's screwball comedy that gets better with each viewing. The reason it does is because each viewing brings out subtleties that were not apparent before. The story is akin to the movies made in America during the 1940s, during the Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant era. It has become a permanent part of my holiday fare." - R. Burr (Amazon.com)

"This is the ultimate comedy. It makes fun of the Soviet government's efforts to make everybody equal. Not only will you love the characters, or hate one (Ippolit), but you'll also have fun with its absolute Russianness. It's like an instant immersion to their culture." - Necromantic Angel from Florida (Amazon.com)

"This movie was first aired (on television) on Dec. 31 in 1975. The second part was shown on Jan. 1 in 1976. The next day people could not stop talking about this movie. I have not yet met a Russian who does not like this film." - 10catz from Houston and Moscow (Amazon.com)

"I have been watching this film religiously since early teens every New Year, and when I moved to live in the UK, the video recording of Ironiya was one of the essential items I brought with me. It's one of those films that I can watch over and over again, instant mood lifter, and I just can't imagine my New Year day / eve without it, and a bottle of 'Soviet' champagne, and Russian salad, and the proverbial Jellied fish that Ippolit referred to as 'muck'." - Trionon07 from UK (IMDB)

"The atmosphere of this film is unique - a word which very rarely can be used discussing films. All that takes place in the film is plausible, it could have happened in reality. At the same time, there is the feeling of poetic, unreal and sublime." - Witold Brostow from Denton, Texas (IMDB)

"Andrei Myagkov delivers a character who undergoes significant, yet somehow believable transformation from a shy, nerdy young doctor to a bold, at times arrogant, yet at the same time romantic man. A great comic performance by Yuri Yakovlev, as the jealous fiance of the heroine (Barbara Brylska) alone makes the film worth watching, to the last moments." - Max-206 from Denver, Colorado (IMDB)

One of the things that I love most about this film is its use of song to reveal a character's inner feelings. As opposed to a conventional musical, the characters in Irony of Fate are musically inclined and pick up a guitar to sing at the table. The songs are music set to the works of major Russian poets. The melancholy undertone and beauty of these lyrics are haunting and gorgeous.

In the following clip from You Tube, the first song is darkly humorous, and the second one is my favorite. After the third song, if you don't want a spoiler, stop watching at 7:13.

Unfortunately I can't find a trailer for the sequel with English subtitles, but this Russian trailer should give you a sense of the magical tone of the film.

Hope you've had a wonderful holiday season so far, and all the very best to you in 2010!