Gloomy River – an allegorical masterpiece of Soviet cinema

I recently watched an old Russian four-part film based on a 1933 V. Shishkov novel set just before the 1917 revolution: Ugryum Reka, or “Gloomy River”. I was dismayed to find that no English subtitles exist for it, for I would so strongly recommend it to any of my friends interested in politics and the human condition… therefore I decided to synopsise it in (very) brief. My Russian is far from perfect, so some of the details might be inaccurate and the quotes are heavily paraphrased, but the meaning shone through to me almost like an epiphany, despite linguistic obstacles (my god, was it chock full of beautiful literary Russian). Here it is anyway. There is a whole religious theme running through the piece as well which I did not mention for lack of thorough comprehension.

A film about the inherent corruptibility of man.

The film starts with an old bandit on his deathbed, warning his son not to follow in his footsteps. First thing the son does is dig up his father’s ill-gotten goods.

Years later, he has built up a successful enterprise and sends his own young son on a long adventure up the Ugryum river to help expand trade. The father sends a Circassian guard with him: a brutal, slavish man with a wild accent. The man who rows their boat (carved out of a single tree trunk) tells them the story of a ghostly shamanic woman who lives in the woods by the river and appears at critical moments in people’s lives.

At one point, they row past a massive boulder where the boatman says, “in one hundred kilometres we will find ourselves at this very same rock.” The river is long and winding. The young idealist, by the glorious old Russian name of Prochor, is scandalised. He says, “we will climb up this rock if we must carry the boat with us,” and proceeds to run up the rocky cliff. The rower comes up with him, and they spot the beautiful shamanka through the trees. They run down in terror and continue along their water-bound way.

The boy meets several characters along the journey, including a rude banker on his own boat who rips off his clients with high interest rates. This causes Prochor to pronounce the fateful words, “one must be an honest man. I will be a kind employer. I will make sure all my employees live like kings.”

He also meets a Tungusic tribe in the woods on the boulder. There is an epiphanic scene where he is standing at the edge of the cliff overlooking the river, proclaiming, “one day all this will be mine.”

The handsome protagonist reaches the town directed him by his father and sets up an extension of the family business, a fur trading branch. He gets in with a well-off family that lives in a nearby town and finds himself betrothed to their charming little daughter.

Meanwhile, back at home, a devastatingly beautiful young woman moves into town and proceeds to seduce all the local men, including Prochor’s petty father. Once his son has carried out two years of lowly retail work, he returns home triumphant, only to see his father cheating on his beloved mother and still treating him like a child.

Prochor seeks out the local scholar, an anchoritic bolshevik in his woodland cottage surrounded by packed bookshelves and taxidermy. The boy demands that he give him an education, stating that he will pay handsomely. “I need an education, so that I can become… a real person.” The beret-clad communist scoffs timidly but accepts.

They go on to have several philosophical debates about freedom and justice throughout the series. The socialist is timid, ineffectual, but full of grand ideas. The future company director says that every man makes his own freedom. “But there should be some established minimum for all,” begs his professor. “To hell with your minimum,” retorts Prochor.

He sees the gorgeous woman Amphisa walking along the snowy road at night and knocks her down with his horse-drawn carriage in revenge for disrupting his parents’ marriage. In a key scene where she is being tended to by a tiny gossiping babushka, she vows to make the boy fall in love with her.

This she does very well. After finding out that his father has beaten his mother, he storms to her house, where she embraces him passionately. “I came here to be angry with you,” he says. “Angry? With me?” she wields her womanly wiles with great cunning. By the end of his visit, he is madly in love with her.

She begs him several times to desert his fiancee for her, and though the dowry is so high he can barely overcome its temptation, he eventually promises to marry Amphisa.

His father begins going mad. The sorceress/witch, as Amphisa calls herself, has promised her hand to the both of them. He sends his son away again and orders the Circassian servant to tear up any letters between the two lovers. Their relations sour, and upon Prochor’s return home she blackmails him into loving her and promising himself to her yet again – less confidently this time, for his desire for his fiancee’s money has grown.

Prochor confronts his drunken father about this marriage in good faith, but the small, jealous man announces, “she can not be in love with you, for she is pregnant with my child.”

The next scene, Amphisa is sitting at the window waiting for her husband-to-be. We hear a shot, and she falls back in her seat. This is the moment Prochor turns from an innocent, idealistic young lad to a hardened opportunist. The communist scholar burns down his cottage with himself in it when he finds out about her death.

During the investigation, it is clear that Prochor was the killer. However, son of a powerful man, he has too many people on his side. A faithful (or rather, hopeful) friend eats the evidence, in the form of a torn-off section of a newspaper, that would incriminate the boy. At the trial, which is strikingly similar to modern times from the layout of the court down to the lawyer’s language, Prochor ends up incriminating the poor Circassian. Everybody is quick to believe this, for the man has a brutal past and has taken the blame for the wealthy family’s crimes before. This is Prochor’s second great crime.

He goes on to marry the wealthy Nina and grows his father’s business to a massive timber empire on the Ugryum river, felling the trees where he met the kindly tribe many years prior. He returns there and takes a liking to one of their daughters. He chases her down like a lion would an antelope, throwing a large branch at her to stop her running, and rapes her on the woodland floor… just like he rapes their home.

He is prey to much stress, as he tries to keep the business running efficiently on minimal expenses from his elegant office littered with at least ten telephones. He is prey also to a corrupt officer who blackmails him daily, taking money in exchange for keeping quiet about the murder of Amphisa.

Prochor, becoming more and more like his now late father, houses his workers in labour camp conditions. Nina visits the workers’ quarters and is horrified to see the filthy, cramped dormitory they live in and their mounting anger against the ruling class. She starts construction work on schools and hospitals to improve their conditions. One of Prochor’s business associates warns the couple of an upcoming revolution, but the boss is outraged at their audacity and orders his directors to lower all the workers’ wages. A forest fire breaks out on top of the cliff and he sends them all to salvage the trees in dire, smoky conditions.

An intense scene builds as the protagonist loses his mind to ever more hallucinations of all his crimes and betrayals. He sees his young self preaching honesty and goodwill as he gives the harsh order to fight back against any unionised revolt.

As he watches the workers march across a bridge with all their wives and children to face their employers, a line of armed men shoots into the fray. Men, women and children fall to their deaths and the survivors run away. Wild-haired, bearded Prochor collapses to the floor in sweaty anguish, but vows to fight to the death. He sees his handsome young self in all his determination to become great and known across the entire world. Conscience or no conscience, what has been begun can not be stopped. He launches into an epic philosophical monologue that I can not even begin to transcribe.

Nina sees her husband incapacitated by his mounting insanity and talks to the board. “Cancel the schools and hospitals.” The men are shocked, but she takes on a stony expression and affirms, “it is my duty to take the reins after my husband. There are higher priorities now. Cancel the schools and hospitals.” So much for sweet, empathetic women in power.

Meanwhile, a vision of the shamanic woman leads Prochor out of his office and onto the rock where he first saw her. Running to the edge of the cliff, past visions of all the people he has killed or betrayed, he looks down at the river to see Amphisa beckoning him in. The power-mad, guilt-ridden king jumps to his messy death, and the end credits run.

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