Cult Cinema: True Friends (1954) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Mosfilm
Legendary Russian film director Mikhail Kalatozov was already an accomplished, seasoned auteur having directed six features before landing on his 1954 post-Stalin cultural “Thaw” project True Friends, a film which posited the ordinarily serious-minded filmmaker with his first debatably carefree comedy.  While the script was submitted in 1952, it wasn’t actually approved until after Stalin’s death, granting Kalatozov a considerable amount of creative freedom he didn’t have previously.  Moreover, it was one of the first movies chronicling a then-post Stalinist Russia while also being something of a lighthearted escapist romp, a charming and enjoyable episodic rib tickler made by one of the Soviet Union’s most technically proficient masters.

Alexander (Aleksandr Borisov), Boris (Boris Chizhov) and Vasily (Vasili Merkuryev) are three lifelong best friends stemming back from their rambunctious childhood (shown in flashback) who since reaching adulthood can barely find the time to hang out anymore.  To remedy this, they embark on a sojourn across the Yauza river on a raft which becomes the focal point of the movie, driving their episodic misadventures forward as they bump into one comical mishap after another which both tests and strengthens their bonds of friendship.  The resulting movie is partially a screwball comedy, partially a thrilling action adventure in some scenes, partially a musical and partially a nonjudgmental observation of how the populace of Russia as a society behaved in the wake of Stalin’s death.

Charming and picturesque with director Kalatazov and his cinematographer Mark Magidson’s trademark lush color cinematography and use of Dutch angles, True Friends is a delightful little number sure to put viewers in a good mood with its infectious humor and subtle use of drama.  Sporting an arresting if not bright and cheery score by Tikhon Khrennikov, the film has the rhythm of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, feeling off the wall and kind of screwy with how it segues from anecdote to anecdote thanks to sharp editing by Ballad of a Soldier editor Mariya Timofeyeva.  The ensemble cast of the three main characters more or less playing a variation of their comic personas is generally solid though the real star of this cheerful endeavor is the distinguished and confident director.

Going on to become the seventh highest-grossing Soviet film of the year, the film enjoyed accolades including but not limited to the Crystal Globe from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival as well as a certain amount of American attention.  While some American critics contested the so-called ‘cultural Thaw’ didn’t get much traction with True Friends, on its terms it is a silly and enjoyable little comedy made by one of Russia’s finest and most wholly original craftsmen.  Though his next film The Cranes Are Flying returned the director to serious minded fare with his WWII romantic drama garnering the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, True Friends remains an indelible outlier in the director’s illustrious career and is one of the sweetest Russian comedies of its day.  Not on par with what he would do afterwards but a good solid mood lifter pretty much anyone can get into.

--Andrew Kotwicki