A comedic and fantastic Russian adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1931 novella THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS that, despite its “classic” status in some quarters, is too antic and overwrought by far.
The director of 1961’s EVENINGS ON A FARM NEAR DIKANKA (VECHERA NA KHUTORE BLIZ) was Aleksandr Rou (1906-1973), one of Russia’s masters of cinematic fantasy, whose credits include classics of the form like VASILISA THE BEAUTIFUL (1940), THE KINGDOM OF CROOKED MIRRORS (1963) and BARBARA THE FAIR WITH THE SILKEN HAIR (1969).
This film was remade, FYI, in 2001 for Russian television.
One Christmas night the devil, depicted as a furry personage with a goatee and a spikey tail, appears atop a hut in the Ukrainian village of Dikanka. It seems the Big D has it in for Vakula, a local blacksmith, due to a church mural he painted in which the devil is depicted in an unflattering light. In an effort at getting revenge on the blacksmith the devil decides to steal the moon, which will darken the area and so prevent Vakula from getting around at night.
The townspeople are remarkably nonchalant about the moon being stolen, remarking “What a nuisance, there’s no moon!” The devil, meanwhile, hangs around with a local witch, flying around with her on her broomstick and whipping up a snowstorm. His efforts are ultimately for naught, however, as the moon returns to its place in the sky before the night is over.
Christmas Day, however, brings a new drama: Vakula desperately wants to marry the luscious young Oksana, who on a nasty whim demands he bring her the Tsarina’s slippers. Vakula decides to ask for the devil’s help in winning the love of Oksana; the devil obliges, taking Vakula on a flight through the sky to the Tsarina’s palace. There Vakula steals the desired slippers and heads back to Dikanka with the devil—who, it transpires, is in for a most unwelcome surprise!
This film only runs a little over an hour, with the first four minutes taken up with a protracted opening sequence that provides an animated introduction for each character. Beyond that the pic follows Nikolai Gogol’s text fairly closely, although Aleksandr Rou appears to have gone out of his way to make the proceedings as broad and cartoony as possible. An ultra-cacophonous music score gives the action a very cartoonish flavor, which goes quite well with the antic staging, overwrought sound effects and elaborate animated sequences intercut with the early scenes.
The whole thing is so antic, in fact, that it grows increasingly difficult to follow the plot, and nor is it ever very funny (although the 1960s-era Soviet children who constituted the film’s target audience may have felt differently).
There are some impressive practical special effects that recall Rou’s more accomplished films (as well as those of his esteemed Russian fantasy filmmaker colleague Aleksandr Ptushko), such as a self-shoveling snow pile and the devil’s multiple flights across the sky, but they’re mitigated by the patently stage-bound scenery, which comes complete with a painted “night sky.” The result is a film that despite some pleasing elements is never very inspiring.
EVENINGS ON A FARM NEAR DIKANKA (VECHERA NA KHUTORE BLIZ)
Kinostudiya imeni M. Gorkogo
Director: Aleksandr Rou
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rou
(Based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol)
Cinematography: Dmitri Surensky
Editing: Kseniya Blinova
Cast: Aleksandr Khvylya, L. Myznikova, Yuri Tavrov, Lyudmila Khityaeva, Sergei Martinson, Anatoli Kubatsky, Vera Altayskaya, Dmitriy Kapka, Nikolay Yakcvchenko, M. Sidorchuk, Aleksandr Radunsky, Georgiy Millyar, Aleksei Smirnov