Matchup of the Day: The Cranes Are Flying VS A Canterbury Tale
After the death of Stalin in 1953, a period of cultural openness began under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Soviet citizens were allowed access to art and literature from other nations, and censorship was enforced with less severity. The Cranes Are Flying is a product of that era. Director Mikhail Kalatozov, who worked on propaganda films during Stalin’s regime, took advantage of the “Khrushchev Thaw” by injecting Cranes with a more artistic vision than previously allowed. The heroine of the film, played by Tatiana Samoilova, displayed greater humanity and complexity than typically seen in Soviet cinema. Cranes went on to be the only Soviet film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Samoilova, called the Russian Audrey Hepburn, received considerable recognition for her performance. However, the Soviet government refused to allow Samoilova to work outside the U.S.S.R. and she never achieved the international stardom that likely would have resulted.
Samoilova with Jayne Mansfield
In Cranes, Samoilova’s character, Veronika, is a young woman eagerly awaiting the return of her fiancé, Boris, from the Great Patriotic War (or WWII for you Westerners). At the beginning of the film, Veronika is carefree and joyful. Her mood changes for the worse as the realities of wartime encroach on her youthful romantic notions. After her apartment is destroyed in an air raid she ends up staying with the family of Boris’s cousin, Mark. However, Mark has previously made advances toward Veronika, which she rejected. Tensions culminate during an impressively dramatic confrontation amid an air raid when Mark again declares his affections for her. Though it is not shown, there is an implication that he takes liberties with Veronika. Apparently out of shame she agrees to marry Mark. Still, Veronika maintains faith that she will see Boris again.
Glancing over the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes for A Canterbury Tale, “bizarre” appears to be a common descriptor. The film, from acclaimed directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, failed to connect with audiences or critics at the time of its release. The intent behind it was to inspire mutual understanding between the English and the American soldiers stationed in their country during WWII (a situation post-mortemed by the directing duo in A Matter of Life and Death). What confounded viewers was the manner in which the directors chose to convey their message: a mystery involving an unknown assailant who pours glue in women’s hair. A detective team consisting of a British soldier, an American G.I., and a land girl from London all arrive at the same time at a train station in the town of Chillingbourne, drawn together through their interest in identifying the perpetrator. This gives them the opportunity to interact with the locals and illustrate the myriad misconceptions people develop about others. The meaning of all this was lost on the moviegoing public. Even Michael Powell voiced disappointment about the film. For several decades, A Canterbury Tale dwelled in obscurity. Martin Scorsese, who is an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, played a part in reviving the film’s reputation.
Whereas Canterbury is mostly whimsical and without serious conflict, Cranes portrays the toll war takes on individuals in a gritty manner. At the end of Canterbury each character ends up receiving what they longed for. Veronica in Cranes, on the other hand, doesn’t. Instead, by my interpretation, she realizes that she is a part of the Soviet family that has overcome the Nazi threat. Her life still has purpose even without Boris. Maybe that is propaganda, or maybe Russians just have different standards for a happy ending.