Sunday, February 6, 2011

Your Mother Was a Communist!

Maxim Gorky's 1905 play, Mother, was an international phenomenon: his most popular play, Mother captured the imagination of liberal and socialist audiences who recognized the Russian autocracy the play critiqued as one of the center of European conservatism and even despotism prior to the First World War. Perhaps inevitably, in 1926 Gorky's polemical play was turned into a Soviet film, which received a soundtrack and score when it was restored by Mosfilm in 1968.

The film revolves around a personal drama of political radicalization. As the film opens, a drunken and impoverished father, Vlasov, terrorizes his miserable wife in his search for money to feed his alcoholic addiction, but the outraged son eventually drives him off with a hammer. Later, Vlasov inevitably finds himself in a tavern whose unsavory patrons are plotting to brutally suppress a strike. The father, who pathetically offers the bartender a domestic iron he has purloined for a drink, is soon recruited by the "black hundreds" goons who recognize his size and strength. When the son, Pavel, declares his solidarity with the strikers, the stage is set for a family conflict in the midst of a wider drama of political and economic confrontation.

At first, the two sides are decidedly unequal. The workers, while numerous and determined, are unarmed. In contrast, Vlasov and his right-wing partners carry arms, including brass knuckles, and enjoy the confidence of the armed police as well as the wealthy factory owner. The organization of the workers proves to be almost a match for the forces of reaction. However, a military force overawes the strikers, and strikers die. Soon, strikers are on the run, and Pavel heroically decides to hide weapons and other contraband in his home to aid the cause of resistance to tyranny. When the tzar's gendarmes arrive to search the house, Pavel's mother is distraught. She seeks to save her son by revealing the weapons cache in exchange for her son's freedom.

Unfortunately, she has naively underestimated the brutality of the government and its representatives, who ignore her deferential bows and take her son away, to be put on trial. The trial, attended by bourgeois spectators who enjoy the courtroom drama as entertainment and spectacle, is fixed in advance. The judges are prejudiced, one expressing his lack of interest in justice by drawing doodles as the evidence is heard; the defense lawyer is young, inexperienced and so nervous that he hiccups throughout the trial. When her son receives a sentence of hard labor, in her melodramatic anguish she cries: "Is this justice?"

The mother, watching the proceedings in horror, moves to a rupture with the old regime. As things get worse for her son in prison, who confronts the prospect of eating bug-infested food, the mother becomes an active opponent of the regime for the first time by distributing fliers and joining a May Day protest at the prison, which soon frees Pavel and the other prisoners. The film provides viewers with a visual metaphor for this revolutionary act by showing river ice breaking up in a spring thaw. Pavel, now free, dramatically flies across the ice to escape the tzar's troops and join his comrades.

The final rupture between the mother and the government occurs during the last sequence of the film. With Cossack cavalrymen charging revolutionaries, Pavel is killed by a bullet and dies in his mother's arms. But rather than collapse in grief, the mother valiantly confronts the charging Cossacks, flying the red flag of revolt and daring the soldiers to trample her to death. Her transformation into a stoic revolutionary is complete: free from all illusions about the the nature of autocratic government and exploitative capitalism, she is prepared to die for her son and the revolutionary cause he supported.

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