Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pie Bagatas Kundzes (At the Rich Lady's)

Comedy/Drama. 1969.
Directed by Leonids Leimanis.
Based on a novel by Andrejs Upitis.
Starring: Edurds Pavuls, Karlis Sebris, Liga Liepina and Zigrida Stungure.

Actor Eduards Pavuls is one of Latvia’s best known and celebrated actors. “Pie Bagatas Kundzes” is perhaps his best film. Not unlike a Marlon Brando he can steal a film in just a few scenes as he did in “Baiga Vasara” or without the proper reins he can ham it up as he did in “Vecas Pagastmajas Misteria”. Leonids Leimanis is one of Latvia’s most celebrated directors. The combination of the two makes “Bagata Kundze” (“At the Rich Lady’s”) a film in the tradition of such neo-realist classics as “Umberto D.” and “The Bicycle Thief”. Okay, maybe not that great, but it is a very good film with one tiny flaw. We will get to the flaw at the end.
In “Bagata Kundze” Pavuls plays Kurmis; an unemployed French teacher caught up in the turmoil of 1920’s Latvia. Reduced to pushing a dray cart for a living he shares a room with an elderly couple who make ends meet by doing other peoples laundry. His decency and work ethic catch the eye of the owner of a newspaper stand (Zigrida Stungure). She has visions of grandeur. Her husband has just started a new political party (referred to in the film as number 49 after it’s position on the voting rolls, and, yes, there are 48 other parties) and greener days are coming. And when they do come, Kurmis along with his friend Fredis (Karlis Sebris) get swept up in the wake of the now Rich Lady. Eventually, she hires Kurmis as her butler/handyman.
In the meantime, Emma (Liga Liepina), the daughter of the elderly couple, is released from prison after doing time for stealing. Emma is a young woman of strong will but with a weakness for things out of her reach. Unbroken and unbowed she returns home facing a return to jail if she doesn’t find a job at a time when no jobs are to be found. Kurmis, who has fallen in love with Emma, cons the rich lady into hiring her as a maid.
The story is told with acidic humor and great performances. Leimanis gets the most out of his cast and setting. Zigrida Stungure is great as the neurotic rich lady who can neither pronounce the name of the piano she has just purchased with her newfound wealth nor play it. Liga Liepina adds just the right note of anger to her performance and Karlis Sebris is perfect as simple-minded Fredis who even while trying to steal some cigarettes can’t stop apologizing.
The cornerstone of the film, however, is Pavuls. A great actor when he wants to be and in this film he seems to want it. Kurmis is a decent man in a world filled with only the haves and the have-nots. And more often than not, the haves are the ones who simply yell the loudest and get the most. Kurmis might bend, but he never yells.
Ah, yes. The flaw. This might only bother those of us who grew to despise the Soviet Union and Communism for all the woes it brought to Latvia. “Bagata Kundze” was filmed in 1969 in the Soviet Union and just like “Ceplis”, another film starring Pavuls, seems heavy handed at times. Latvia in the 20’s was certainly a chaotic place. Not unlike today’s Latvia, seems as if a new political party would spring up every day. Unemployment was high and corruption ruled the day. The people were desperate for a leader or a party to emerge from the mess that could lead the nation back to stability and prosperity. In “Bagata Kundze” that party could of course be only the Communist party. The symbolism doesn’t much bother me, but it might bother some of the older generation, especially those who escaped Latvia during the war. “The Bicycle Thief”, “Uberto D.” and the “Grapes of Wrath”, for example, had similar motifs and are still great films. While “Bagata Kundze” isn’t quite in that league, it has its moments and deserves to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Emma is played by Liga Liepina and the newspaper stand is run by personage played by Zigrida Stingure.