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I'll try not to spoil the plot for anyone, especially since while you will guess the direction in which the fate of the heroine is moving you won't guess the final resolution till the last moment.
What makes this masterpiece so rare is the confluence of four exceptional artists which allowed unprecedented blending of music into a thriller with well developed characters. Not as a background but as a part of the story. Let's just say that if you skip the lyrics you won't be able to follow the motivation of main characters. This is what allowed it to stand the test of time. I watched it 27 years after it was made and it is as fresh and vibrant as if it was this year's production.
First of the four is of course Ostrovsky who wrote a thriller with character development and emotional story that will keep you guessing to the very end even after you know each character, it's motivation, and sometimes even fate. It's close to knowing that is Titanic going to sink but you can't stop watching since it's the "how" and fine grained aspects that really matter.
Even without the other cinematic elements the play itself would make for a good movie, but for director (Eldar Ryazanov) this is just the beginning. Ryazanov is the principal artist here who takes the credit not just for the exceptional blending of music but also for making the actual big river (Volga) and an old steamboat integral parts of the story and metaphors. One can easily imagine Missisippy and Jazz instead of Gypsy music, or Danube and a Strauss waltz band without any change to the story. He made conceptual structure completely universal while keeping the full flavor of the old Russia.
The composer (Andrei Petrov) is the next artist equally responsible for this rare blend and not just the instrumental part but also vocal, actual poetry used for lyrics and the stylization and blending of Russian Gypsy music.
Last but not least - Nikita Mikhalkov as the male lead and the heart and soul of the ensemble who managed to combine tragic, comic and even musical aspects in impeccable performance with surprising facial and physical acting capabilities.
This is the ensemble play/film, meaning that most actors had to work hard to make their characters alive, but female lead (Larisa Guzeyeva ) deserves special praise for effective blending of dramatic and musical aspects doubling up as narrative. Also, there are virtually no precision cutting tricks (director cutting into replicas to make it look like less capable actors actually played emotions and transitions). Scenes are mostly filmed in long shots with minimal editing. Just that aspect provides the quality an order of magnitude above a comparable Hollywood production. It's not that it's not doable but that the cost of production would be prohibitively high to reach that level.
And in the end I will say (А напоследок я скажу :-) this is one of the films to keep and watch again every several years. Like the big river, it constantly flows, and is constantly fresh.
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