Another little gem of Soviet cinema is Tri Topolya na Plyuschikhe, year 1968, directed by Tatyana Lioznova and written by long-lived dramatist Alexander Borshagovski. It’s an unassumig story, visually simple yet very touching, that through a brief episode in the life of a villager portrays to us – with great narrative and interpretative skills – a number of genuine and well defined characters, while sets forth several exquisitely chosen sides of rural and urban lives in mid-20th-century Russia.
In barely 75 minutes runtime the creators of this rather unknown work manage to present to us the longings and joys, hardships, problems, hopes and concerns of a few human types belonging to the country at the time: the rude frankness of peasants, the diverse attitudes – often ambiguous from a personal point of view – towards the bolshevik government, its goods and bads; the old shepherd whose wisdom and experience we’re only hinted at; a philantropist local courier, a good-natured war crippled, who endures the best he can his bad tempered wife; an uncouth and dry man, unpopular because of his nondrinkenness, part time poacher, who tries to keep himself and his family free and independent, to some extent, from the omnipresent kolkhozy (collective farms in the Soviet Union, based on joint property of the produced goods, featuring an excessively rigid and bureaucratic administration); a fat grumpy woman, quite a character, who fully supports ‘the system’; the typically rustic way -almost devoid of sophism and artifice- in which friendships and relations arise; the child who listens to Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien on a small radio without barely understanding the lyrics; and among them all, Nurka, a woman native to a neighbouring village who, with unhinhibited resignation, takes charge of the tough domestic tasks and manages to pass on her spontaneous joy to the folks she deals with…
All these people, rather traditional in ways and ideas, contrast with those from Moscow, a city which we are described as ‘lazy’, yet bustling and varied: long-haired youngsters on -rather backwards- Western fashion clothing; the night bird miss-groover-trendy who admires London and Paris out of sheer snobism; the wife trying to free herself from a brutal husband whom she doesn’t love any more; the old Uzbekh who barely knows any Russian and has travelled some thousand miles – sporting an astonishing pragmatism – to meet his daughter’s family; and of course the ever-present taxi driver, a lonely man, war orphan, midway between the gentleman and the rogue, yet capable of being touched by tenderness, and whose life we guess routine and grey despite being spiced up every single day by all kinds of people he gives rides to. A Moscow of huge circuses and broad avenues, that grows tall and wide at a frantic pace admitting new inhabitants from all corners of the Soviet Union and accommodating them in monotonous appartment blocks like human hives….
Notwithstanding all these characters, the director skillfully presents them not as a chaotic collage, nor as a set of bright but disjointed pieces in a mosaic, but as frames finely tuned with the course of action, without sharp edges nor lacking continuity (in fact, only by a deliberate count up, afterwards, one can realize how many of them go past the screen in little over an hour); and they all seem realistic, plausible and relevant.
The plot is extremely simple: housewife Nurka travels two hundred miles off her village in order to sell at the Moscow market – where prices are more convenient – a caseload of homemade ham. Her main concerns – perfectly understandable, by the way – are these two: being paid a fair price for the meat, and not being ripped off by the taxi driver when going from the train station to her sister-in-law’s, where she is meant to stay while in the city. Actually, this latter worry is a key piece in the film, and the screenplay relies a few times on it, as a recurring element, to introduce some subject or other, some character or message.
Once she arrives at Moscow, the conversation with the driver on her way home, plus -once settled in- the chat with his husband’s sister, who updates her about the latter’s dissatisfying marriage, will give Nurka a good deal of food for thought and will make her reflect on her own life: whether she’s happy enough with it or, else, should she go for a plausible but risky and uncertain change; and the spectators will – almost unwittingly – find themselves pondering on the difficulty of such decision and wondering which would be the wisest choice, and how could they, in any case, possibly judge someone else’s decision when confronting a similar situation.
Therefore, this story only in appearance is a trivial one; but its content, its deep emotional nature and its social and human messages are the kind that one doesn’t fully notice -leave aside assimilate- while watching the film, but rather take a few hours’ ‘settling in’ and evocation in order to fully show up, when one realizes that the scenes insist in coming back to one’s recollectioin over and over. But if there’s a feeling that stands out above all others, like a fluid within which the whole tale seems immerse, and lingers on afterwards -as remains the aroma of a rose after it withers-, that feeling is tenderness; and though this word is uttered just once or twice – and only as in passing, its notion wraps up and transcends the film in a subtle, elegant, almost masterful way.
Perhaps the scene that best shows this, among the most intense and powerful ones (actually my favourite), takes place when Nurka, sitting in the car of a stranger — stalled under a sudden autumn shower, is requested by the driver to sing -all by herself- a given song, and she shyly bids him: “but don’t stare at me”. What sincere bashfulness! Such an intimate and personal action is to sing not just for oneself, but for a totally unknown person, meaning a helplessness and a nakedness of the soul probably more embarrassing than even physical nudity. This captivating tenderness on the part of the heroine is the counterpoint of, and somehow explains, that fear of hers of being swindled by the city tricksters.
For the rest, as hinted above, the acting of all the cast (except for one girl, but it’s well known that children can’t interpret) is quite good, very natural, devoid of affected racousness and the too well known, pathetic, cheap gestures so common in our (meaning: Western) acting schools; so common that we practically don’t even notice it. Besides, I personally value a lot the fact that, despite the high proportion of beautiful women in Slavic societies (and how easy it would be to pick the prettiest ones!), the productors have chosen as the heroine an actress who is neither a beauty nor has a nice figure (a virtue, by the way, quite usual in Soviet cinema, where the lure for the audience is not the actors’ physics but their ability to communicate feelings and emotions).
The title, Three Poplars at Plyuschikha – a rather dull one, I’m afraid – refers to the name of the café (Three Poplars, Plyuschikha street) by which the dénouement of the story takes place. The film was shot in black and white, but the version that Mosfilm has recently made available for free on Youtube (with English captions) is a much more recent colorization (year 2011), and it’s the same one which can easily be found out there for torrent download. I encourage the reader to give it a try, mostly since it’s a short and very catchy story that, in the worst case, can hardly disappoint anyone.