'Siberiade': a provocative glimpse of Russian history

Movies don't come much more ambitious than ''Siberiade,'' the new Soviet import that had its American premiere last week in New York.

An epic tale of two families in the cold reaches of northern Asia, it was originally released as a pair of films, running a total of 4 1/2 hours. It has been trimmed to about three hours for US audiences, who are more geared to the quick rhythms of television than their Soviet cousins are. But it's still a gigantic work, with more historical scope and storytelling sweep than any American picture in recent memory - except Hollywood's own Russian excursion, ''Reds.''

Not that ''Siberiade'' has the resonance of, say, a Tolstoy epic. It has a lot more breadth than depth, and rarely gets under the skin of its many characters. Also, its long time span - stretching from 1909 through the '60s - is too much for the movie to handle. Just as we get to know and care for a character, the story takes another great leap into the future, dragging us along whether we're ready or not. This technique is good for conveying information, not so good for generating emotion. And sure enough, ''Siberiade'' is more interesting than involving.

Still, it's an imposing picture, with its share of visual surprises and narrative twists. And since it was a major success in its native country, it gives a provocative glimpse of popular Soviet attitudes toward social and cultural history.

''Siberiade'' was directed by Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. If part of his name rings a bell, it's because his brother - filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov - has already won large Soviet and American audiences with such hits as ''A Slave of Love'' and ''Oblomov.'' Hot on Nikita's heels, the ambitious Andrei is also a multiple-threat man, with another picture called ''Nest of Gentry'' premiering in New York next month. It's based on the Turgenev novel.

I talked with Konchalovsky the other day in New York, just a few hours before ''Siberiade'' opened to sizable crowds at the Embassy 72nd Street Cinema. Unexpectedly, he told me he first had the idea for a film about Siberia while flying across the United States.

''I was struck by the sheer size and beauty of your country,'' he said in his mildly accented English. ''And I realized that Russia is just as big and diverse. People think of Siberia as nothing more than a camp or a gulag, a desolate place where nobody goes without being exiled. But it's quite a varied region, really, and there are hot summers in the south. Lots of people live there and think it's the greatest place on earth - just the same as in Colorado!''

''Siberiade'' isn't even the first movie to be shot in Siberia; an earlier example is ''Dersu Uzala the Hunter,'' which enjoyed great popularity with American viewers. For filmmaking purposes, Siberia is a bit out of the way, but working there posed no great inconveniences. ''Remember that film is a state enterprise in my country,'' Konchalovsky says. ''When you need something, you get it,

and nobody counts the money too closely.''

Konchalovsky has a lot in common with his filmmaking brother Nikita Mikhalkov , whom I interviewed for this column when ''Oblomov'' opened in the US (in the Monitor issue of April 9, 1981). In fact, Konchalovsky wrote one of his brother's biggest hits - ''A Slave of Love'' - and gave him a major role in ''Siberiade,'' where he plays an oilman in the last portion of the film.

Both men are fascinated with Russian history and tradition, as well as the geography of their country. They agree that ''wide open spaces'' are an important heritage shared by Russians and Americans and that one can see this heritage in movies from the two countries.

''Russia and the United States are the opposite of most European countries,'' Konchalovsky says. ''We need space, and we use space generously in our films. We are not cramped or crowded people. We like to spread out, to stretch.''

Another similarity between Americans and Russians, according to Konchalovsky, is the relative youth of their respective countries (politically, in the case of the USSR). ''People in young countries have more illusions and fresher beliefs, '' he says. ''And they have more sense of humor, while people in old countries go more for irony.''

Though he clearly loves his vocation, Konchalovsky didn't start out to be a filmmaker. He began as a musician, and studied for years with the great pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. ''But I never felt free as a musician,'' says Konchalovsky. ''I am grateful to my mother and dad for browbeating me into practicing, but music isn't really what I wanted to do.

''So when the time came for me to graduate from the conservatory, I switched to the cinema profession. I am a very visual person, anyway. Seeing is what means most to me. And I like films that work in a musical way. Most of the American directors approach movies with a lot of suspense, always worrying about what happens next. But when you listen to music - or watch great comedy - you don't think about the next moment. You live in the present, and you appreciate where you are right now.''

In keeping with his musical interests, Konchalovsky is now writing the libretto for an opera based on Dostoyevsky's ''Crime and Punishment'' and a screenplay based on the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Still, his main priority for the moment is gauging American response to ''Siberiade.''

''We had 70 million admissions to 'Siberiade' in Russia,'' says the filmmaker. ''But they are different from Americans. In the US, you treat a movie as something to consume. You see it, and then you forget it, unless you really loved it.

''Russians aren't like that,'' he continues. ''They get very involved in a film. If they dislike it, they don't just forget it, they think about it all night. Then they write letters. I get from 5,000 to 7,000 letters after each film - not only from people who liked it, but from people who hated it. And if they're writing to me, think what else they're doing. They're probably sending letters to the Kremlin, too. They're probably complaining to Brezhnev!'' he concludes with a wry grin.

Looking at the cinema scene in general, Konchalovsky feels there is no film ''renaissance'' going on now, as there was after World War II. ''Most filmmakers are mediocre,'' he says. ''Only a handful have a real sense of individuality - like Martin Scorsese, for example.

''And if you have no real individuality, you soon get corrupted by the wish for power instead of art. In the US, power is money. In the USSR, power is ideology. But the result is the same: Mediocre talents are corrupted. Only the artist with true individuality will continue to stand out from the crowd. And that's rare in any country. . . .'' Other Soviet imports

In the 1960s, Russian films enjoyed a real vogue with American audiences, who flocked to such pictures as ''My Name Is Ivan'' and ''Ballad of a Soldier.'' Since then, the number of Soviet imports has fallen off sharply. The few that do arrive are often based on novels that already have a following, such as ''Oblomov,'' by Ivan Goncharoff, and ''Solaris,'' by Stanislaw Lem.

Now the US and the USSR may be headed toward a new cinematic detente. Variety , the entertainment newspaper, reports that Jack Valenti - president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) - has decided to attend next year's Moscow Film Festival.

Following an invitation from the Soviet minister of cinema, this will be Valenti's first Moscow trip in four years. It appears the Soviet film establishment is eager to attract major American movies for the festival, and Valenti's cooperation could be helpful. Reportedly, the MPAA chief doubts Hollywood will reap any immediate gain from festival activities, but feels that visible rapport between US and Soviet movie interests will have long-range benefits.

Variety further reports that the Soviet film industry would like to open offices in New York, though Valenti opposes this move ''until they start to do business.'' Valenti is quoted as saying ''relationships will certainly improve'' if the Soviets ''accept a contract to buy a certain number of US films for dollars annually.''

Konchalovsky says that the number of American films to play the Soviet Union is as low as the number of Russian films that now make their way to the US. Ironically, the Russian movie that inspired Konchalovsky to become a director - ''The Cranes Are Flying'' - was widely popular with American audiences about 20 years ago. Though US-USSR exchanges have declined since then, news of increased communication between American and Soviet movie bureaucrats is encouraging.

Meanwhile, a whole Russian filmfest is headed for American screens. Konchalovsky's next export, ''Nest of Gentry,'' is slated to open next month at the Film Forum 2 in New York. After its run, an eight-week retrospective of Russian movies will begin, under the aegis of Corinth Films. Later, the festival will tour the US, with stops in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, among other cities.

The program will range from such classics as ''Potemkin'' and ''Ivan the Terrible'' to more recent productions. Also included will be four new films, plus two more Konchalovsky productions: his first full-length picture, ''First Teacher,'' and his 1971 version of Chekhov's ''Uncle Vanya.''

And yes, ''The Cranes Are Flying'' will be on view, bringing memories for those who remember the American miniboom in Russian movies a couple of decades ago.

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