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Jaffa

Jaffa views the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of young love. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Parana is an idiot. By “idiot” I don’t mean a fool or an affable, bumbling Forrest Gump. No, she’s a full-blown, filthy, barefoot, sack-wearing, eye-rolling, Village Idiot with a capital ‘VI.’ She’s of the classic Russian variety you have to go to a Dostoyevsky novel to see these days. And her teeth... don’t even get me started. How she comes to be Stalin’s “fiancee” is the humorous and tragic tale told in Stalin’s Bride, the 1990 Hungarian film by director Peter Basco.

Protector of Idiots

Stalin's "bride" is a Dostoyevsky-class idiot
Stalin’s “bride” is a Dostoyevsky-class idiot

Parana arrives one summer day without explanation to a nowheresville village in the Soviet Union. The village is struggling to get by under Stalin’s collectivization program of the late 1930s. This place was probably struggling to get by under the Czars and then the Mongols before them. I’m reminded of the old joke about the village that was so small it didn’t have a village idiot... they all had to take turns. With Parana’s arrival the job is solidly hers. It’s as if she’s always lived there, and maybe she has.

Parana is at the bottom of a merciless pecking order that goes all the way up to The Boss, Stalin himself. He’s the man who’s name is almost unutterable and when spoken is done so in a whisper.

One day, as the villagers go about their daily routines, which include tormenting Parana, she’s backed up against a large poster of Stalin. The portrait alone is enough to make the villagers hesitate and Parana quickly assumes that Stalin has become her protector. She has no idea who he really is and as she crosses herself we see that in her mind he might just be God himself. “Stalin will protect me!” she cries. The villagers are in no mood to argue with her on this point and we are treated to some wry and ironic humor. They laughingly call her ‘Stalin’s fiancee’ while at the same time backing away from her. Where Stalin is involved, it’s best to leave matters alone.

Revenge of the Idiot

The local police chief, like everyone else, has quotas to meet. He arrests Parana, then sends her off to the district headquarters as a spy and provocateur for having profaned the name of Stalin. Once she’s accused, there’s no turning back and she is subjected to rough interrogation. “Who sent you?” the district manager shouts “The Japanese?... The British?” Parana has no idea where she is let alone what Japan or Britain might be. The villagers plead with the police chief to intercede for her. “Yes she’s an idiot,” one of the locals says, “but she’s our idiot.”

The Soviet machine grinds her up and spits her back to the village a changed woman. A chance association on her part can now send her into a furious panic. She sees a bracelet and it becomes in her mind manacles. “Spy, spy!” she cries, and off goes the hapless victim of her accusation. The tables are turned and Parana is now the most dangerous person in the village, though she is unaware of her new power over life and death. If ever there was a loose cannon, she is it.

Masterpiece of Tragicomedy

Parana is a tragic spectacle and yet you smile at her invocation of the demigod Stalin as her protector. She is pathetic, the village and its inhabitants are pathetic, the times are pathetic, and yet you still have to smile even as you shake your head. This is humor in the classic European manner. Hungarian director Peter Basco has made a masterpiece of tragicomedy that could only have been made after the fact of the Soviet era (in this case, 1990). Actress Juli Basti gives us a sometimes-over-the-top performance as Parana that you will not forget.

I suspect that, because this is a Hungarian production, her caricature has more than a hint of Russian stereotyping. If this were a German film, given the German history of degrading Russians and Slavs in general, this might be a more serious charge. And while there may be no love lost between the Hungarians and the Russians, Basco has included some good-hearted and decent characters, in particular Zorka (Gy†rgy Cserhalmi), the man who refuses to join the collective and who drives the film to it’s stunning conclusion.

If this film had been made in the USA, the villagers all might have been portrayed as victims. But in Stalin’s Bride they all take turns being the village idiot, by being both enablers and victims of the system. And Parana, as Stalin’s fiancee, is both the biggest loser and most powerful one of them all.

DVD Extras

There are no extras on this Facets DVD

Picture and Sound

There is some grainyness and pixelating on the copy I watched, but it was nothing fatal. The English subtitles are clean and legible, but have the occasional misspelling or grammatical error. Sound quality is a little muddy at times, particularly in the opening music.