A Bollylover's Adventures in Soviet Cinema Part II: Sadko (1953)

Are you in the mood for some gorgeous visuals? Some populist-filtered Russian mythos with your morning coffee? I am . . . so let's talk Soviet films!

Sadko (1953), is Russian auteur Alexandr Ptushko's adaptation of the Russian epic, or bylina, of the same name.  (You can also look forward to a score adapted from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera of the same name.) And true to its epic proportions, it's beautiful, but a little distant.

I recently read somewhere in the interwebs that soviet films are considered by many to be "too culturally specific" to be enjoyed by non-Russians. I had to laugh. Are fairy tales too "culturally specific" to spread from one country to another? Hardly. Is a tragic romance too culturally weighted to carry meaning beyond the land dictating Love's insurmountable complications? I don't think so. Is adventure only adventurous when you understand the language people happen to be shouting to one another during a storm on the high seas? Probably not. For those of us who spend a lot of time watching films from countries we do not call home . . . for whom subtitles are a privilege not a right . . . for those who get bored with stories and songs in our native language . . . for us, the idea that "cultural specificity" in films might be prohibitive is just laughable.

All that to say, Sadko probably would make more sense if you happened to be Russian. However, who needs that sort of sense? Approach it with your eyes and your rusty old childlike wonder, and you'll be fine.

Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov), the titular hero of our tale, is not much more than a walking/talking canvas on which the high ideals of the story are painted. However, as much as he might be a rather wooden, two-dimensional knight, I didn't find him irritating . . . just kind of predictable. Luckily, he is not the only reason to watch the film.

As the story begins, we see Sadko arriving in medieval Novgorod, a bustling harbor city. Promptly, Sadko buys a slave just so he can free him (trading one of his only possessions, his hat), and instantly falls in love with a pretty maiden.

The maiden, Lubava (Alla Larionova), happens to have three times the personality of Sadko, but seems interested in him (based on a 2 minute encounter), nonetheless. However, she says that she is not free to return his interest, given that he is a nobody, and her father expects her to marry a somebody. This revelation, combined with his experience meddling in the market of flesh, sends Sadko off on a contemplative walk through the harbor's very active market scene. He suddenly awakens to the stark differences between the wealth displayed in the stalls, and the impoverished existence of the majority of Novgorod's inhabitants.  

The music and the slow panning of the camera tell us what Sadko does not yet have the words to express. (He's more of an Action guy than a Word guy, anyway.) Namely, that Something Must Be Done. 

Cut to a Novgorod banquet hall, where the rich merchants are partaking in a great feast, while the commonfolk perform and serve. These common folk aren't too happy about it, but as the older fellow says to the younger in the picture below, you just have to put up with it, because there's no other option. 

Here is where the feisty filmi child would answer, Main karoonga, nay karoonga!
Enter Sadko. Rather dramatically and tactlessly, of course. Under the pretense of wishing to perform for such "important" men, Sadko fires up his psaltery and parodies the richest merchants' foibles in front of the entire crowd. 

Given the nature of the power dynamics in the room, this brash move doesn't win Sadko any supporters, and he leaves, somewhat deflated. 

"You know those days you get up and suddenly think, 'I want to look like the great-great grandfather of Rasputin' ?" 
You know how I said Sadko wasn't really the best reason to watch this one? Luckily, this film is really all about location, location, location. Oh, and Neptune's daughter (Ninel Mishkova). Yes, if I were to remake this film, it would be entirely from the sea princess' perspective, have no doubt about that.

I mean, just look at her . . . rising from the shadowy lake . . . all smitten with Sadko's dejected song.

Once again, for whatever reason, the sea princess decides to set her cap for Sadko. She invites him to come with her to her father's vast kingdom under the sea. Unfortunately, Sadko tells her that he is bound to an oath: to bring happiness instead of oppression to the people of Novgorod. 

And because she's rather powerful (if I were so inclined, I would contrast her oft demonstrated agency with Lubava's passivity throughout the story) she decides to win Sadko's affection by making his dreams come true. 

In a strange turn, she promises to send him a golden fish by the morning tide. Perhaps this is a common courting custom among the seafolk? I don't know. 

Spurred by the sea princess' promise, Sadko makes a bet with the ruling merchants. If he can trawl up the mythical golden fish by sunset, he'll get access to the merchant's overflowing treasure stores.

If Sadko fails to find said fish, the merchants will be free to remove his head. Seems fair, no? But, it seems Sadko isn't too worried. He's got bigger plans in mind.

Sadko promises to return, Lubava promises to be faithful, etc. etc. They both demonstrate an excellent "chin-up" manner, especially with the solid shoulder's and jawlines that just scream: Working People's Heroes!

"Never take that hat off, my love. I abhor helmet hair."

I originally lost interest a bit at this point in the film, feeling I had seen it all before. However, when I did return to the film a few days later, I realized I was wrong . . . so very wrong.

But hey, you like Hindi films, right? Why should you like this? Why should you keep reading? Since this blog is dubbed "Filmi~Contrast," I guess shall endeavor to make it applicable to your tastes. (Hopefully after a while, you'll be hooked, too, and I won't have to do any more evangelizing . . .)

1. A glimpse of other cultures (and India) as viewed through the Soviet/Russian Folk Tale Lens:

I don't know about you, but I think it's always fascinating to see one culture through the eyes of another culture . . . especially when I count neither culture as my own. It's so removed from my own mental experience, that I can't help but stick around, just to see how the heck the stereotypes are going to play out.


"We have come to take your happiness. If you have any.  How does that make you feel?"
According to this tale, Scandinavians are needlessly violent, paranoid, and depressed. And ultimately, sit upon a land that's not even worth exploring. As Sadko says when he orders his men back to the boats, a search for a bird of happiness is unlikely to prove successful in such a bleak country. After all, if the viking folk had ready access to happiness, shouldn't they seem a little happier? This cultural jab is a bit hilarious to my mind. Pot calling the kettle black much? It's like when we Minnesotans make fun of Canadians for scratching out a meager living in an icy wilderness. The truth is, of course, that we live in a rather depressing icy wilderness for much of the year as well. It's just *slightly* less icy . . . a fact we WILL use against Canada any chance we get.


According to Sadko, India (and Indians, perhaps) is beautiful and full of sensual delights . . . but treacherous. Definitely treacherous. 

Where do you think these matte paintings are supposed to represent? My guess is somewhere in Tamil Nadu. 

India, in this representation, is ruled by a fellow owning a stache almost worthy of a Rajput . . .

 a couple of token elephants (I'm not complaining), a troop of Bharata natyam dancers trained in classical ballet (or is it the other way round?) . . .

 and a fetish for challenging visitors to play games on his massive chess board (no, that's not a euphemism).


The Novgorodians dash up the Nile just long enough to click their mental shutters and save an image of the (rather odd looking) Sphinx and the Pyramids to their travel memory files. Mysteriously, no Egyptians seem to be present in the barren landscape.

It is here that the Novgorodian expedition, having seen enough leagues of ocean during the three or four year journey, finally decide to return home. Sorry Egypt. It's not personal. Or maybe it is. I'm really not sure.

2. Psychedelic Bird of Happiness

For those of you who need more psychedelic in your psyche (and aren't currently getting enough from 70's Hindi's movies or your C.R.E.A.M. and Pink Floyd albums), we have a woman/bird who seems to radiate her own special brand of acid trip. She also is creepy . . .  in a good way. She also may or may not serve to illustrate the difference between alleged "Eastern" mores and Soviet mores.

3. Visiting the SEA people

Classic Hindi films usually have a lot going for them, but the mythical locations are rarely as technically impressive. So, if you watch mythologicals and always wanted to see a sea deity's palace, you're in luck.

For those of you who might have once secretly dreamed of living under the ocean (like I did as a child--and maybe even do now). . . this movie is definitely what you've been waiting for. I'm not sure what combination of effects they used, but damn. I almost believe Sadko's visit to the sea people. Also, since much of the scene is played for humor, any defects in the special effects department can be seen as supporting the comedic elements in the script.

It's just so COOL. Confession: I want to live in the middle of an aquarium, too, and have a catfish for a pet . . . just like the Sea King. 

Will Sadko and his men return with the fabled bird of happiness? Will it actually make them happy? Is Sadko done with the people of the Sea? Watch the film to find out . . . it's really not much of a time commitment (especially for those used to three-hour Hindi films) and is certainly an excellent way to spend a Friday afternoon when you get off work early . . . or to fill that lazy Saturday morning breakfast feature slot.

No, no, not THAT much of a timepass. 

This film is also available on Mosfilm's YouTube channel with English subs. Also, apparently this film was stripped and redressed for a horrible American dub back in the 50's, which should be avoided at all costs. Also, for the production-minded reader, here's a link to a discussion of the use of bigatures and matte painting to achieve the exotic locales in the film.

Do svidanya, comrades! 


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