By Masha Sotskaya, participant of The Odessa Review journalism seminar and workshop
Though she is not retired after her 80th birthday, Kira Muratova is likely Ukraine’s greatest living filmmaker. Back in 1989 Kira Muratova released “The Asthenic Syndrome”, which has become a classic of Late Soviet Cinema. What lessons does it hold for contemporary audiences?
The Asthenic Syndrome, often described as “the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet film”, begins with depiction of a black-and-white drama centered on a recently widowed woman and her desperate and self destructive protests against the world. This section concludes quickly and is revealed to be part of a Post-Modern film-within-a film sequence , and as the images change from black-and-white to color the scene shifts to a crowded cinema screening this black-and-white movie. The films of consists of two parts that are barely connected. This technique is one that Muratova has used in many of her films over the decades.
“The Asthenic Syndrome” is a film that exemplified the restless and turbulent condition of late Soviet, when the old rules of living were in the process of being discarded but the new codes had not yet been created. Arguably, the period of Perestroika made people become more emotionally stunted, socially passive and aggressive. “The Asthenic Syndrome” was a bold move for Soviet cinematography and it obviously was not permitted to be screened for a wide audience. This was mainly because of the profanity which takes place in the very last scene of the movie. However, the reason to re-watch (and speak) about this film today is not only because it was important in the past, or because of it’s place in Cinema history, but because it remains an important film today.
The second of the two stories posits that a school teacher who is dealing with the asthenic sleep syndrome is doing so because of her unachieved dreams and her social condition. The problem is that every person in the crowd in the movie theater, does not differ from the main characters. There is no social rust and every one of them is afraid to believe their neighbor, everyone is afraid to listen, and everyone is looking in their own direction, one that leads to their apartments, in which they might hide from each other. The alienation and fear can be felt almost viscerally while watching the film. A market scene, where multitude of unknown people brutally push each other in order to get a fish makes one feel scared. The shot produces the feeling of drowning in the sea. In another scene, which located right above the market, someone can be heard shouting: “Kolya was killed! Kolya was killed!”. There is no reaction, and one begins to wonder how one would react in that situation.
Despite the fact that “The Asthenic Syndrome” came out nearly 30 years ago, the social situation today in Ukraine (and perhaps the world) seems to have remained much the same; the only thing that varies is perhaps the amount of leisure activities that we can afford for ourselves. But our free time spent within our own shelves won’t help change anything for the better. Selfish behavior and excessive self-perception can play a prime role in the self-destruction of both the individual and the society. Closing one’s eyes on everything that is happening in front of them , one can end up in the same situation as in the last scene in Kira Muratova’s film: a lonely person in an empty wagon that is rushing nowhere. If “The Asthenic Syndrome” is still relevant today, than perhaps we should make an effort to prove that we can learn from our past.