Fans of aesthetically and politically rigorous tragi-comic absurdism should sing along to Kira Muratova’s superb new film.
A hand on an icy windowpane of an obviously fake train is the dream-like opening image of what will be a waking nightmare for the two central characters in Kira Muratova’s exceptional new film, Melody for a Street Organ, a work in which artifice and theatricality play a key role. Throughout the film, Alyona (a 10-year old girl) and Nikita (her 8-year old brother) will be ushered out of every building they wander into as they desperately search for the father. Even the most public spaces will function as enclaves of power and privilege, something these abandoned waifs have absolutely no access to.
It’s Christmas, the season of good will to all men—so long as the price is right. Hawkers peddle ‘Italian-made’ fake trees and cheesy biblical postcards (such as, tellingly, ‘the slaughter of the innocents’), while minstrels entertain train travellers with carols proclaiming Salvation and Hope as the outside world devours itself. This is the world Alyona and Nikita are entering, a brutish landscape populated by wild dogs (literally and figuratively), a conscience-free zone of cruelty, corruption and decadence, where morality is lost to avarice, and where the destitute roam the streets delivering prophetic rants that damn all and sundry, as if their words have been channelled directly from God. So begins Muratova’s most unambiguous and excoriating portrait of callous societal self-interest and dysfunction.
Early in the film, Muratova signals the pattern that will repeatedly befall her young innocents. After being thrown off the train (the first of many instances where the children are escorted from buildings, shunned, pushed around, or made to feel unwanted and unwelcome), they are set upon by a gang of kids who rob Nikita of his coat. Soon after, Nikita falls into a hole. When Alyona tries to help, he hits her. Falling back into the hole, he cowers and cries. She jumps in to console him, and they share a rare moment of affection. In a sense, they never really leave this hole. Frustrated at every turn, every person they encounter will wield whatever power they have with indifference at best, vampiric relish at worst. Those who don’t are either drunk or mad. Even the chance-find of a large foreign bill (a potentially life-changing sum) proves not only useless (the kids can’t convert it to local currency due to their age), but becomes a conduit for more humiliation and betrayal.
From a brief synopsis, one could easily misconstrue Melody for a Street Organ as another mid-brow audience pleaser about kids looking for love in a cruel world, but nothing could be further from the truth. Muratova takes a rigorously unsentimental approach. An absurdist, slightly grotesque theatricality prevents pathos from creeping in while providing room for genuine compassion. These kids are not naturally loveable. There is nothing cute about them. One senses that they could, at any moment, turn feral. It’s a ploy that keeps the essential focus of the film wholly intact, well away from any pleading bit of business that could ruin the film in lesser hands. Muratova is solid. She has points to make, and she holds her ground with a firm, clear-eyed grip. Right from the opening sequence, we sense that we are in the hands of a great artist.
The world of Melody for a Street Organ is noisy and chaotic, but there are moments when Muratova slips into powerful silence, usually in conjunction with tracking shots, such as when we pass a line of 30-something men sitting at computers, absorbed in the relative safety of virtual worlds. Silence is again used to great effect when Alyona and Nikita peer into the home of a bourgeois family celebrating Christmas, a sequence nicely framed by the characteristics of silent cinema. A crane shot returns the children to their Kafkaesque journey, like Hansel and Gretel chasing Alice’s rabbit along warrens of systematic indifference, passed one mad-hatter’s tea party after another. There is no room at any inn and no guiding light in the heavens for these homeless orphans.
Traipsing aimlessly through the snow, the children stumble into a surreal indoor garden of lush Henri Rousseau-like foliage—and a touch of Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are”. They climb some stairs and find themselves in an auction house, a room of colour and splendour that fills them with wonder and delight. Here we encounter the street organ of the title, with its repetitive and unsettling melody. This off-kilter, carnivalesque theme will loop unrelentingly in the background as the children are ushered out of another environment deemed off-limits to them. The door clicks shut, and once again they are out in the cold, their brief detour into the magic of childhood discovery nothing more than a fleeting diversion, and a cruel reminder of what has been taken from them.
The next scene starts with a conversation between three (wise?) men rummaging through bins outside a shopping mall. “You can sense,” says one, “that the tradition of refined gluttony is making a comeback.” “That means society is on the verge of great upheavals.” says another, “Sensitive bourgeois stomachs can feel the cataclysm coming, so they stuff themselves with a gourmet’s gusto.” “Yes, and the Union of French chefs petitioned the Pope to remove gluttony from the list of deadly sins!” With this, Muratova’s tour de force final section begins, a scathing 50-minute indictment of the inhumanity and indignity of corporate consumerism. Everyone is a threat, and everyone is threatened. Even beggars fight to defend their patch. Troughs of food mock the hungry kids, and attempts to scrounge scraps left on tables are frustrated. Muratova is emphasising, among other things, the implicit cruelty of advertising, the fostering of desire for something that cannot be obtained or realised, and the subsequent emptiness that converts into perpetual consumption, a perfect breeding ground for psychotic discontent and anger.
There are distinct Felliniesque elements in Melody for a Street Organ, but a more pertinent touchstone (especially in this final section) could be Jacques Tati, particularly his masterpiece, Playtime (1969). Standing at the entrance to the supermarket—where the irregular beep of checkouts sound like the pulse of a dying hospital patient—Alyona tells Nikita to wait until she returns with food, but he’s on the verge of giving up. She tries to reassure him that he is not, as he claims, mentally stupid. “It’s just, if you can’t differentiate between cause and effect,” she says, “you fall into a stupor.” Muratova is undoubtedly addressing the audience here. As Nikita waits, patting a stray cat that he has slipped inside his jacket for comfort, hope seems to come in the form of a wealthy, grandfatherly gentleman, a Santa Claus or St Nicholas figure, a Godly type who slips money into Nikita’s pocket. Thinking he has stumbled upon the perfect gift for his childless wife, he rings to tell her that she will find a ‘fairy-tale little boy’ waiting for her at the mall. Arriving with a crown on her head and a wand in her hand, she floats in like a fairy Godmother, an Ice Queen, or the Good Witch of the North. Alas, Nikita has been moved on again, and shuffles through the streets to the strains of a musical theme reminiscent of Nino Rota (Fellini’s great composer). “The enormity of space,” thinks the Ice Queen, “So many of us, myriads of stars. Was there ever a little boy? I think I’d prefer a little girl.”
Back at Mall Security (a room decorated with pictures of automatic weapons), two guards are ‘processing’ Alyona. A parrot in a cage squawks, “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas! Pay for your purchase! Pay for your purchase!” Alyona pleads to be let go. “You have to ignore them,” says one of the guards, “It helps to look them in the eye and say ‘screw you’, otherwise they’ll put you off balance.” Forced to watch the black and white images of her shoplifting, Alyona’s head is held in a fixed position before the monitor. She falls to her knees as the parrot mimics her: “Please let me out of here! Please let me out of here!” Suffering the humiliation of Christ, her passion is complete. Here, Muratova depicts a system that can only function when impersonal, a culture in which employees must develop a necessary ethical and moral detachment, where all decisions and actions are geared towards the sole benefit of the company. In return, they are found Blameless before their corporate God.
Muratova’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is an irreligious passion play in which every character is nailed (one way or another) to invisible crucifixes. They are, in a sense, abandoned children, orphans of the mother country. The film ends on a striking final image, a tableau vivant that mirrors thousands of nativity postcards of a child in a manger surrounded by an awe-struck assembly. The silence of this final shot is spiked by the sound of one of the congregation overcome by hiccups, a sound that speaks louder than the barrage of (necessary) words that came before it.
In her earlier masterpiece, The Asthenic Syndrome (1989), Muratova portrayed national loss, paralysis, and despair in the age of perestroika. This superb new film considers a very different, though equally oppressive regime—the rapacious lust for wealth. Rarely drawing attention to its estimable technical virtuosity, the film is a sophisticated, highly cinematic work of art. It is, indeed, a ‘melody’ composed to accompany the ever-present rhythm of existential despair, a tune that some viewers (it has to be said) simply couldn’t take. There were few walkouts, but I spoke to one person who did, a friend with East-European family ties who found the vodka-fuelled ranting and self-absorbed venality too much to bear. I can see how some might find the film hard going. It is unrelenting, and it does require stamina of sorts to get through. But if, like me, you’re a fan of aesthetically and politically rigorous tragi-comic absurdism, try singing along to Melody for a Street Organ.