When most people think of Soviet Cinema, they picture ponderous and didactic propaganda pieces. Or badly hacked / edited redubbings of SF films only suitable for Mystery Science Theater 3000. But just like Russian literature, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Nikolai Gogol was born in 1809 in what is now Ukraine. Self-conscious and withdrawn (probably something to do with his height; schoolmates called him their “mysterious dwarf”), he developed a talent for mimicry and storytelling. In 1831, he met the writer Alexander Pushkin. Inspired, he wrote and published a collection of stories from his youth entitled Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. This movie is an adaptation of one of those tales – “Noch pered Rozhdestvom,” or “Christmas Eve.”
The movie lets us know right away we’re in the realm of fantasy. A witch (Lyudmila Khityayeva) is flitting about the heavens collecting stardust, and a devil (Georgi Millyar) is gingerly attempting to pluck the moon from the sky. Down in the village, it’s Christmas Eve, and a trio of elders are braving the Devil-induced darkness and blowing snow to prove the old Russian saying, “The Church is near, but the road is icy. The tavern is far, but I will walk carefully.”
It’s not all darkness and gloom; the youths of the village are out sledding and playing in the snow. The lovely Oksana (Lyudmyla Myznikova) is holding court with her friends, chatting about all the things young single girls chat about, like potential boyfriends. Meanwhile, the aforementioned witch is back home, mixing up her potions and also holding court to receive one of her suitors, who just so happens to be that devil we’ve seen before.
When we next see her, Oksana is back home, preening and primping for a night out when she is visited by Vakula (Yuri Tavrov), the village blacksmith. He’s one of her suitors, but is doing a poor job of it. He’s a rather Gloomy Gus; the best he can offer Oksana is dull blandishments about her beauty. Oksana can’t take it anymore; she gives him the brushoff saying she’d consider him if and only if he can bring her the Tsaritsa’s slippers.
Our witch is having tea with the devil when there’s a knock at her door. Turns out it’s the village mayor, and it wouldn’t do for him to see her with the devil. Well, she happens to be Vakula’s mother, and there are a bunch of empty coal sacks lying around. So in goes the devil…. and then the mayor goes into a second when another village elder comes calling… Soon after, a third sack gets an occupant… Then Vakula shows up, and it’s time to bring those sacks back to the smithy….
Grumbling under his burden, Vakula has an epiphany. If Oksana wants the Tsarista’s slippers, well then, she’s going to get them! Even if he has to ask the local sorcerer for help. Good thing he’s got the devil in one of his sacks!
Gogol is known for writing spooky tales of the supernatural. This story is not one of those. It is pure delight through and through, with not a villain in sight. Even the Devil is of the impish prankster variety, preferring to cause people to trip and stumble instead of collecting souls. The movie makers could have gone for a bleak and bitter environment around the village, but instead it’s all bright, cheery, and colorful.
The movie was available at the Internet Archive the last time I checked. So if you’d like to spend your holidays frolicking in the snow, drinking with friends at the tavern, flirting, and making the devil fly you to the palace, give it a look!