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The Russian Soul Lies Behind 'Wartime Romance'

February 22, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Probably only a Russian could get away with a film as soulful as "Wartime Romance" (a the Monica), and writer-director Pyotr Todorovsky succeeds beautifully with this sentimental story contrasting a man's all-consuming love with a woman's more realistic view. "Wartime Romance" is an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.

Alexander (Nikolai Burlyayev), a slight, unprepossessing young soldier on the front line during World War II, is transfixed by the sight of a beautiful field nurse, Liuba (Natalia Andreichenko), who is having an affair with a major. Alexander swiftly defends her honor when a comrade casually slurs her. Before the battle overtakes everyone, Alexander is able to declare his love for her and wish her and the major well.

Moving ahead to the early '50s, Alexander, now a projectionist but as much a dreamer as ever, thinks that there's something familiar about a pastry vendor he encounters on a snowy Odessa street. He is stunned to realize that this shabby woman with the coarse manner is Liuba, who does not remember him and forcefully shoves him away when he starts hanging around her. But Alexander wears her down, gaining her friendship. He learns that the major died in battle, leaving her pregnant with a daughter, now 6.

As Alexander's adoring encouragement leads Liuba to start caring about her appearance again, his clever, loving wife, Vera (Inna Churikova), commences her campaign to hold on to her husband.

One of the Soviet Union's preeminent actresses, Churikova, in a well-writen part, becomes the film's dominant presence, despite the excellence of Burlyayev and Andreichenko. Chuirkova's portrayal is luminous of a woman outclassed in beauty by a rival but more than making up for it in wit.

Yet "Wartime Romance" is more than a wry, rueful comedy. It implies that those who risked their lives in war, can be cruelly neglected in peacetime. "Wartime Romance," though set in the past, can be considered courageous for its blunt depiction of grinding poverty, something rarely shown in Soviet films set in recent decades. What's more, as hard as life has become for Liuba, she declares her love for the freedom it has given her, saying that she hates having to answer to anybody. Rare, too, is a Soviet heroine who is not above paying off her debts with sex.

With its picturesque settings of Odessa in winter, "Wartime Romance" (Times-rated mature because of adult themes) proceeds with a graceful fluidity that reveals Todorovsky as a natural storyteller with the camera. There may prove to be stronger or more original films than "Wartime Romance" in contention for the best foreign film Oscar, but it's hard to imagine how any could be more poignant.


An International Film Exchange release in association with Sovexport Film of an Odessa Film Studio production. Writer-director Pyotr Todorovsky. Camera Valery Blinov. Music I. Kantiukov, Todorovsky. Sets Valentin Konovalov. With Nikolai Burlyayev, Natalia Andreichenko, Inna Churikova, Z. Gerdt, E. Kozelkova, V. Proskurin, V. Shilovsky, A. Martynov, Katya Yudina.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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