As Russian flags proudly fly on government buildings in eastern Ukraine, proud and nationalistic stories are being recited in Russian cinemas. The year 2012 marked the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s failed invasion of western Russia, where the survival of the Russian people was as much due to dogged determination as it was to the cruel winter cold.
The source of inspiration for Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is against this rich historical backdrop that Director, Anton Sivers weaves a romantic war epic around a legendary farmer’s wife who dared to stand up to the French occupation.
Vasilisa Kozhina, a pretty but poor peasant girl, is in love with a young nobleman, Ivan Rokotov. However, Ivan’s domineering mother is determined that her youngest son will marry into wealth, despite his clear intentions for Vasilisa. Broken hearted, Vasilisa accepts the marriage proposal of Maxim, a simple but honest-hearted farmer and well-respected elder of the village. The disconsolate Ivan heads off to join the Russian army, later to be reported dead.
Losing her village elder husband Maxim early in the French occupation, Vasilisa has nothing left to lose. Assembling a rag-tag group of children, widows, and older men, she forms a rebel band of fighters who, armed with pitchforks, scythes and axes, succeed in ambushing supply trains and capturing French soldiers. But the love interest of the local French captain and her compromising sister eventually put her and the lives of her rebel band into jeopardy.
The story of Vasilisa Kozhina is a legendary one, portrayed wonderfully by Svetlana Hodchenkova in this ambitious historical piece. Anton Sivers, however, uses a number of well-worn story-telling devices to weave this tale, and risks slipping into cliché.
Vasilisa’s love interest in the noble Ivan is clearly superimposed over the real version of events (she was in reality a mother of five children), and the overplayed love interest of the local French captain fails to bear any real emotional pay-off in the re-telling.
And while the rousing of the rebel band of fighters was reportedly the stuff of legend, it felt a little underwhelming at times, with a number of the ambushes being poorly constructed and unconvincing to the critical eye.
That said, you could forgive the narrative shortcomings, and lose yourself in the excellent cinematography, with scenography reminiscent of Repin and the itinerant Russian painters of the 19th century. The supporting cast give excellent depth to the film, and the portrayal of peasant life is convincing and refreshing to watch.
Though War and Peace it may not be, Vasilisa is well worth a viewing for lovers of Russian history and cinema.
View the trailer here:
Review by Andrei Gostin