The gentle piano strains playing over the helicopter shots that open Boris Barnet’s Alyonka (1961) immediately establish its unique mood of intimate lyricism and epic grandeur. As Barnet’s camera glides over what seems to be a flat, endless landscape of fields and roads, finally closing in on a fleet of trucks making their way through this vast emptiness, we may think we’re in for another bout of mid-20th century Soviet triumphalism. And indeed, as a voiceover reminds us, Alyonka is ostensibly a tribute to the brave souls who in the 1950s relocated to the newly built collective farms of the recently expanded Soviet empire. (The characters in the film are traveling to Riga, which, as part of Latvia, was claimed by the USSR after World War II, after a brief period of independence between the two World Wars.) But Barnet was never much of a propagandist. Rather, he was the kind of artist whose films embraced the popular genres of their day even as they struck out for new emotional territory. In Alyonka, his luminous masterpiece, he presents a world where aspiration and idealism are forever struggling with the human soul. But he does so with such stylistic grace and good humour that you could easily miss the sharp conflict at the film’s heart.

The film’s structure seems perfectly designed for socio-political homilies. The titular figure is a young girl – smart, outspoken, curious, perhaps an outward example of bright-eyed, impressionable Soviet youth. She’s part of a diverse group of characters who find themselves traveling to Riga in a truck, as part of a convoy. The truck separates from the convoy to seek a short cut, and then gets lost. Each of the passengers has his or her own story to tell: A shy, awkward young woman tells of how, after graduating dentistry school and travelling a roundabout path, she wound up in a small town where she was told off after complaining about lack of proper equipment. A hitchhiker who joins them describes his troubled relationship with his wife, who came to find life with him boring and almost died when she ran away from home during a heavy snowfall. An older woman relates how her daughter, who hated life in a collective farm, became a symbol of provincial pioneerism after her tragic death in a lake. The individual stories are told in flashback over the course of the journey, and while they are quite different from each other, they do all achieve a certain level of gentle irony driven by the characters’ struggles with their social environment. It’s as if Max Ophuls had directed Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939).

Barnet’s career encompassed several periods of Soviet cinema. He began as an assistant and actor to Lev Kuleshov on Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924), and his earliest films, Devushka s korobkoy (The Girl with the Hatbox, 1927) and Dom na Trubnoi, Mezhrabpom-Rus (The House on Trubnaya, 1928), showed him toying with then au courant modernist montage effects. But even these early films also foregrounded characters in a way that clearly marked the director as a humanist, far from the mannered, constructivist approach of his contemporaries. In the 1930s and 1940s, Barnet made a number of remarkable films that took potentially epic stories of war, sacrifice and betrayal – such as Okraina (Outskirts, 1933) and U samogo sinego moray (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936) – and undercut the romantic monumentalism of their scenarios with sharply observed, sensitive character details. In a Barnet film, the way a character eats, or the way he tells a joke, can convey as much information as a major plot point.  But it wouldn’t be quite fair to call him a realist: his films also often evince a fondness for the mysteries of the natural world and an openness to the poignant absurdities of life, lending them an otherworldly, almost magical-realist quality. Some have cited the pastoral dreamscapes of Alexander Dovzhenko as an influence, but one can also sense a connection to the work of Michael Powell – though there’s no record of Barnet being familiar with that director’s work (or vice-versa).

In a way, this refusal to be categorised harmed the director’s reputation in later years, and also undercut his films’ value as propaganda. Barnet’s films are at their most awkward when they get overtly political, as in his ode to collectivisation Shchedroye leto (Bountiful Summer, 1951) (though it has its fans, including Jacques Rivette). Indeed, if there is an ostensible, overt political “point” to Alyonka, Barnet seems to have missed it: The stories don’t come together to form any kind of monument to the bravery of the Soviet pioneers (no matter what the voiceover at the end tells us), nor do they even manage to portray characters who happily come to accept their fates. Indeed, despite the film’s fable-like structure, there’s an in-progress, half-formed quality to the vignettes. The female dentist, for example, is still searching for a settlement where she’ll have the proper equipment, and a brief argument even breaks out in the truck as to whether she should accept her lack of adequate supplies. In other words, the jury is still out on the moral of her tale.

Buried beneath Alyonka’s fable-like narrative is a tale of how individuals struggle with the models imposed on them, about the difficulty of living according to others’ expectations – be those others teachers, professional superiors, or the state. Barnet wasn’t a subversive, but Alyonka, intentionally or not, is a subversive film in that it dares to reassert the importance of the human within the landscape of social progress. Each character in the film struggles with an ideal – with the way they should be, or are expected to be by others. The young dentist has an idea in her mind of the equipment she needs; the doctor she runs into chides her for making waves and not agreeing to work with lesser tools. The husband whose wife ran out on him tells of how she hung up a Rubens painting on the wall of their little hut, in pursuit of culture, only to have him take a shot at it with his gun. Similarly, in Moscow, she had bought a dog after reading and being taken with the Chekhov tale “The Lady with the Dog”, an overt nod from Barnet to one of his key artistic influences.

Perhaps nowhere do we see the struggle over doing the “correct” thing more fully than in the young girl Alyonka’s story. In it, she accepts a dare from a school friend that she can get a less than perfect grade, and willfully answers a simple math problem incorrectly. When asked by her increasingly bewildered teacher to re-do the equation, she persists in her error. The situation reaches surreally comic levels, as the teacher tries every trick in the book, and the school administration and even the young girl’s parents are called in to deal with the situation. All throughout, Alyonka insistently refuses to give the correct answer, taking the dare further than expected. But in her own way, Alyonka is simply shedding one identity, or ideal (the perfect student), for another one (the student who is wrong). With this story, Barnet shows the breakdown of a system built on everyone performing their roles: Alyonka’s actions set off a chain reaction of failure and soul searching, with her teacher in particular pondering his own identity as a teacher as a result.

This episode could be seen as a key to understanding the film’s characters. They seem, in many ways, devoid of individual agency. They constantly act as if they’re adhering to a set of instructions, whether they’re doing the “right” thing or not. That sounds like a bleak portrait of a world populated by automata, but Alyonka is nothing of the sort, thanks to Barnet’s humanism, the kind of interest he showed throughout his career towards the details of everyday life. He finds poetry in his characters’ attempts to live up to these ideals. They struggle to be perfect because they are, fundamentally, optimistic and feel that the world holds genuine possibility for them.

The film’s style reflects this hope, too. Barnet’s camera movements have always had real power to them. He rarely uses his camera to just follow someone; his pans and tracks constantly discover something new, and nowhere in Alyonka is this more evident than in the celebrated tracking shot following ahead of the truck that cuts through a cloud of dust to discover the hitchhiker. (It may also be an homage to the tracking shot that introduces John Wayne in Stagecoach.) This stylistic approach is actually something of a challenge in Alyonka, because so much of the film is set in a vast, endless prairie with nothing visible in the distance. And yet the camera never feels aimless; it’s always seeking, always heading towards something. The exteriors of this flat landscape almost always feature the horizon. In a lesser director’s hands, this light in the distance might have been a symbol for a great Soviet future, but in Barnet’s hands, it becomes an analog for his characters’ occasionally naïve, but genuinely human, perseverance. There’s a touch of sadness to it, too: Barnet could see this optimism – he could sense it, shape it, and show it – but he evidently couldn’t share it. Wounded in part by the failure of Alyonka and his 1963 film Polustanok (Whistle Stop – another masterpiece), the director took his own life in Riga on 8 January 1965.

Alyonka/Alenka (1961 USSR 86 mins)

Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Boris Barnet Scr: Sergei Antonov Phot: Igor Chernykh Ed: L. Galkova Prod Des: Aleksandr Myagkov Mus: Kirill Molchanov

Cast: Natasha Ovodova, Irina Zarubina, Vasiliy Shukshin, Nikolai Bogolyubov, Erast Garin, Nikolai Kryuchkov

About The Author

Bilge Ebiri reviews and writes about film for New York Magazine and Vulture.com. His work has appeared in Bookforum, The Nashville Scene, Entertainment Weekly, Moving Image Source, Popular Science, Spirituality & Health, and Time Out New York. He blogs at They Live by Night.