Another friendly Soviet invasion targets US audiences
Soviet films have launched a friendly invasion of the American movie scene.
It began with ''Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,'' which won an Oscar for best foreign-language picture in 1980. Then came ''Oblomov,'' which also found success with critics and the box office.
Now, buoyed by success, the Soviet film industry is eagerly showing off its wares -- hoping to build greater popularity with American audiences and grab a larger slice of the American market.
A new Russian movie called ''Unfinished Work for Player Piano'' is due soon, based on an early Chekhov work. And more ambitiously, a 15-week showcase of Soviet pictures has opened at a New York movie house. This series, comprising five recent features, began last month at the Embassy 72nd Street Theater, and will run until late June. Each film is slated for a three-week engagement, and if any turns into a hit, it will surely rush out to other cities and towns. Meanwhile, the festival is providing New York moviegoers and critics with a welcome glimpse at recent cinema in the Soviet Union.
At midpoint in the series, it seems safe to say that Russian film is not exactly bursting with inspiration these days. Of the three pictures shown so far , only one -- a period piece called ''The Savage Hunt of King Stakh'' -- has any real sweep or imagination. The others are mild and rather tame. Come to think of it, so was ''Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,'' and the eccentric ''Oblomov'' only caught fire after the first hour or so. From all recent evidence, Soviet cineastes are playing it safe.
The new series opened with ''Love and Lies,'' directed by Ilya Frez. It's a romance with a ''Romeo and Juliet'' twist about two teen-agers who fall in love despite objections from the boy's father and the girl's mother, who themselves had an affair years ago. It's a neat idea for a comedy, and the action swings colorfully between Moscow and Leningrad. But director Frez unravels the story so slowly, and with so little visual imagination, that the characters lose all their fizz. The tale seems ready to end long before it's over.
There's more to enjoy in ''Autumn Marathon,'' the current entry in the series. The main character is an active man - teacher, translator, father, jogger -- who gets bogged down in an extramarital affair. Told with impeccable taste and quiet humor, the story shows the ungainly results of this situation without ever preaching or moralizing.
The screenplay is carefully written, sensitively balancing the funny, the sad , the poignant, and the just plain bewildering. And the ending has real bite, as the protagonist tries to reform without putting his heart into it and sinks right back to where he started. But the director, Georgy Danelia, has no cinematic ideas to match the irony of the story and the wry realism of the performances. The images merely illustrate the plot - a sure prescription for a second-rank movie.
The most original of the recent batch, ''The Savage Hunt of King Strakh,'' has also been the biggest flop at the box office. In fact, it was yanked from the series after a few days, after poor reviews and poorer attendance. Yet it's an ambitious film with a lot to recommend it. Set at the tail end of the 19th century, the plot concerns a traveling scholar who stumbles on mysterious doings in an ancient manor house. For a while it looks like we're in for a ghost story. But it turns out the ''savage hunters'' -- a marauding band of vengeful spooks -- is really a gang of all-too-human conspirators with an ax to grind. The police won't put a stop to the situation, because the status quo is convenient for them, so our hero decides to get involved.
It's a mix of politics and poltergeists, all soaked in historical atmosphere. Why has it failed with American viewers? Probably because it's the most heavily Russian of the recent imports. It lumbers along at a slow and stately pace; the mood is dark and brooding most of the time; and the story unfolds in long, weighty shots that make ''Barry Lyndon'' look like ''Star Wars.'' If you adjust to its deliberate pace, it has a murky fascination. If you don't, it'll bore you out of your chair. Since even the sympathetic viewer is likely to get itchy after a while, it doesn't promise to become a surprise hit.
Still to come in the Soviet showcase is ''A Slap in the Face,'' a comedy in the Armenian language that is also scheduled to be shown this year at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles and the New Directors/New Films series sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Directed by Genrikh Malyan, it tells three stories -- one about an old man who raises an orphan, one about the orphan when he grows up and seeks a wife, and one about his marriage to a woman of dubious reputation.
The series will close with ''Twenty-Six Days in the Life of Dostoevsky,'' directed by Alexander Zarkhi. Billed as the first attempt to portray Dostoevsky in a movie, it focuses on the author's frantic attempt to finish his book ''The Gambler'' in less than a month.
So far, the Soviet minifestival has presented nothing to compare with the towering science-fiction drama ''Solaris'' of a few years ago, or even the odd ''Oblomov'' -- both of which gathered much of their momentum from the excellent novels (by Stanislaw Lem and Ivan Goncharov, respectively) on which they were based.
At this point, the Russian-American film scene is far from its glory days of two decades ago, when Soviet features crowded onto United States screens. But it's good to see the Soviet movie business in there pitching. A robustly international film community is a healthy asset to worldwide communication and understanding.