St-Basil-fireworks-on-New-Years-Eve-2013Recently NPR featured a story about a Soviet-era movie that remains popular to this day in Russia, called The Irony of Fate.  Click here to see NPR story.

In Soviet Russia, Christmas Fr Freeze crwas of course greatly downplayed, and the New Year assumed many of that holiday’s functions, including the decorated tree, gifts, and Ded Moroz, the Russian dynamic equivalent of Santa Claus.

Accordingly, there were scads of New Year’s films made, some memorable, some not. But The Irony of Fate stands head and shoulders above them all. In popularity it’s more than the equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life in America, and, being totally secular and not venturing into speculations about the afterlife, it doesn’t suffer from the theological difficulties of the latter.

I have watched The Irony of Fate more times than I can count. For me that’s saying a lot. I watch movies only once. Rarely I’ll watch something two or even three times, not more. I began viewing this one when I hardly knew any Russian, and initially the repetitions were to help with the language. When that became easier, I was intrigued with what the film had to say about its time and culture. Now I watch it about once a year, just because.

The story is based on the phenomenon of identical apartment buildings and street names throughout the Soviet Union. Buildings

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The male lead of the film goes to the banya with his friends on New Year’s Eve, accidentally gets drunk, and in his stupor ends up on a flight to Leningrad. Thinking he’s still in Moscow, the hero gives the taxi driver his address, goes to what looks like his building, turns his key in the identical lock of an apartment identical to his, and falls into the leading lady’s bed (she isn’t home at the time). The plot develops from there, with a lot of ironic twists and turns, no small amount of humor, and many memorable lines. If you’re daring and have several hours to spare, you can watch the two parts of this 1976 made-for-TV film online. If your Russian isn’t so good, this version has English subtitles. Part 1  Part 2

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 10.13.47 AM (2)Why does this movie continue to have such an appeal? The NPR report suggests that it nostalgically reminds people of a simpler time. But this can’t explain why it became wildly popular from the outset, already during that “simpler time.” The fact is that it’s a fine production, with real substance behind the comedy. Arguably its main strength is the abundance of songs and verses. The texts are the work of some of the finest twentieth-century Russian poets, set to artistic but simple and accessible music played on a guitar. The attentive viewer will note that the message of the poems is generally connected to the story. The instrumental theme song heard throughout the movie, with its festive holiday mood, turns out to be a song about the advantages of not having an aunt, a dog, a wife, a house, and so on, that may offset the advantages of having them. It then invites the hearer to “decide for yourself: to have or not to have.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 10.45.24 AM (2)This may be The Irony of Fate’s profound secret. Behind the frivolity and humor, the glitter and the jollity, lies a note of tragedy—more than the slight sadness alluded to in the NPR piece. The poetry is mostly about unhappy or lost love, betrayal, separation, alienation, even about death. Indeed, the new romance that develops through a quirk of fate leaves two others in the lurch. In American romantic comedies, the jilted lover is either evil, or realizes it’s all for the best, or finds someone else right away. Here the two deserted fiancés are perfectly fine people whose only glaring fault is excessive jealousy. They’re left behind with no recourse. It’s all about the happiness of two, fatefully established at the expense of two others.

All of this does reflect an essential aspect of the Russian character. This is, after all, about the irony of fate, and Russians tend to be fatalists. They also see all too easily the heartbreak of life. The Russian soul finds the formulaic Hollywood “happy-end,” as they call it, unrealistic and unsatisfying. Can there really be happiness without sorrow?

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 10.58.13 AM (2)The high quality of The Irony of Fate is underscored by the “sequel,” made some 30 years later with a reunion of the original cast, but not the same director. I won’t go into detail about the story, except to say that history repeats itself, more or less, with the son and daughter of the first film’s main characters. (According to the sequel, the hero and heroine of The Irony of Fate didn’t live happily ever after.) It’s a typical silly New Year’s comedy. Unlike its predecessor, it’s not founded on artful poetry and music. There is one song only from the original, plus one new song, neither having much of anything to do with the plot. I haven’t yet met a Russian who has anything good to say about this film. For my part, I think it’s not bad if taken in isolation and not compared to the original. When that comparison is made, however, the new movie falls far, far short. It only underscores why the old The Irony of Fate has become a classic and lives on. In its art and in its take on life, that film transcends its time.