Friday, December 22, 2006

Vassilisa the Beautiful, 1939

Director Aleksandr Rou brought this traditional Russian fairytale to the screen. The story centers on Vassilisa, a virtuous maiden trapped in the body of a frog, and Ivan, a virtous young country bumpkin who becomes engaged to her, then must fight a dragon to marry her.

The peasant father of three sons decides that it's high time his two eldest (and fairly useless) sons get married. So, they go outside and fire arrows into the air. These arrows magically find the homes of eligible young women. Each intended is wealthier and higher class than their beaus, but are equally useless. The youngest brother, Ivan, against his father's protest, also fires an arrow in search of a bride. His arrow strikes a lake, and comes to rest next to a frog.

Ivan is disappointed, but accepts his bride with admirable stoicism. Well, of course she turns out to be a beautiful maiden who was unjustly trapped in the body of a frog. The evil serpent Gorynych had demanded that Vassilisa marry him. When Vassilisa refused, he cursed her to live as a frog in the bog.

Now that she has been freed from the curse and betrothed to someone else, ol' Gorynych is more steamed than ever. He has Vassilisa kidnapped and guarded by the witch Baba Yaga. Ivan determines to go on a quest to rescue her.

Though the serpent is normally unconquerable, there is a "slaying sword" that Ivan can use to kill him. This magical weapon is kept at the bottom of a well, behind a ponderously locked door. So Ivan must quest first for the key, then for the sword, then for his bride. This sort of multi-layered quest is very popular in old tales. This movie movies through the layers at a brisk pace, avoiding the tediousness that such quests sometimes produce in print. (I suspect these developed in the old days in order to stretch a bard's tale over several cliff-hanger-filled evenings.)

A favorite scene: Ivan shows mercy to an enemy he defeats in battle, and is later rewarded for his compassion by his former foe granting him aid.

Favorite line: "The key to every lock is a fearless heart."

You can guess how it all ends, but I won't spoil the details.

The effects are, of course, crude by today's technical standards, but they are fairly ingenious and work quite well as long as the viewer doesn't get too picky. The sets are very good. When the characters go into the forrest, there are huge trees whose trunks and boughs form ominous shapes. Baba Yaga's hut, though it doesn't walk, does suggest the fowl-leggedness of legend. The costumes are also very well done. The two "noble" brides' costumes show distinct cultural traditions from Russia's past, which, if I knew more about Russian culture, I could name for you. (I'm thinking one is Finnish and one is from the asian steppe.)

This is a very fun movie. I'd like to own it for my dvd library.