Imagine that you’re watching “Maria’s Lovers” (citywide) with subtitles, for it approaches its grand passions with a woozy, rapturous seriousness associated with foreign films. Yet it is an impeccable piece of vintage Americana, right down to the slang, for all the Russian soul of its distinguished director, Andrei Konchalovsky.
The juxtaposition takes some getting used to--but it is also what makes the film finally seem so special and rewarding. Indeed, Konchalovsky has succeeded where Eisenstein failed, becoming the first Russian citizen, as opposed to emigre, to direct a Hollywood production.
“Maria’s Lovers” is a fable of love about a man who discovers that when his dream at last comes true, he’s overwhelmed by it. A young GI (John Savage) has sustained himself through unspeakable horrors as a prisoner of the Japanese by imagining himself married to his childhood sweetheart (Nastassja Kinski). When he returns home to a small, bleak Pennsylvania steel-mill town, he finds Kinski waiting and willing, but his joy is so great that he can’t consummate their marriage.
The opening of “Maria’s Lovers” is disquietingly authentic-seeming. A line of soldiers, all of them clearly disturbed, are apparently in the process of being discharged from the Army. And sure enough, it’s the real thing, a clip from John Huston’s long-banned Signal Corps documentary, “Let There Be Light,” that disturbing account of the purported rehabilitation of emotionally damaged World War II veterans. Through a bit of “Zelig"-like movie magic, Savage has been added to the end of that line; it’s as if Konchalovsky and his co-writers wanted to tell the story of what happened to one of Huston’s subjects once he left the hospital and returned home.
In a remote, heavily ethnic (primarily Eastern European) community in a pre-Masters and Johnson era, Savage and Kinski are left to thrash out their marital agony by themselves. But for Konchalovsky, this couple’s story is not a case history for which therapy is much needed, but rather an attempt to discover through them whether love truly possesses redemptive, enlightening powers. In short, “Maria’s Lovers,” for all the grubby realism of its locale, is romantic in conception. (It was shot in run-down Brownsville, Pa.)
The film’s title is misleading, for Kinski is a virgin when she marries, although she, not surprisingly, attracts many men. Among them are Vincent Spano, the young Army officer she’s been dating, who’s fallen in love with her; Robert Mitchum, Savage’s virile, grizzled father who requests from her just one non-paternal kiss before she becomes his daughter-in-law, and Keith Carradine, slyest of wandering troubadours.
Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia’s lighting brings to “Maria’s Lovers” a naturalistic, as opposed to realistic, glow that is reminiscent not just of Konchalovsky’s own epic “Siberiade” but of the films of his director-brother Nikita Mikhalkov and of Andrei Tarkovsky. (Konchalovsky has worked as a writer for both.)
Konchalovsky has been equally fortunate with his meticulous production designer, Jeannine Oppewall, and he and his associates have created in richly expressive imagery a world in which so many come to such vibrant life: Kinski, undeniably sensual despite her demure, ribbon-in-her-hair Jean Peters look; Savage, the pain in his eyes belying that quick, quizzical smile; Mitchum, whose impact is a matter of sheer presence, conveying his caring better than any words could; the fiery Spano; Bud Cort, the kindly co-worker who exhorts Savage to see Kinski as the loving woman she really is and not as some goddess fallen from her pedestal, and Anita Morris, the gaudy, good-hearted neighbor lady who speaks the truth when she tells Savage that he loves Kinski too much.
Carradine is something else: He’s the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a seducer of boundless, insinuating confidence, a guitar-strumming figure of seedy flash, right down to his shabby wing tips.
Be warned: There are some jolting moments caused by Savage’s personal demons, especially a nightmare involving rats, and the love-making, while not graphic, is bold enough to warrant the film’s R rating. In “Maria’s Lovers,” Andrei Konchalovsky has brought a fresh, liberating perspective and universality to a quintessentially American experience.
A Cannon Group presentation of a Golan-Globus production. Executive producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Producers Bosko Djorjevic, Lawrence Taylor-Mortorff. Director Andrei Konchalovsky. Screenplay Gerard Brach, Konchalovsky, Paul Zindel and Marjorie David. Camera Juan Ruiz Anchia. Music Gary S. Remal. Production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Costumes Durinda Wood. Associate producer Rony Yacov. Second-unit camera Hanania Baer. Art director David Brisbin. Film editor Humphrey Dixon. With Nastassja Kinski, John Savage, Robert Mitchum, Keith Carradine, Anita Morris, Bud Cort, Karen Young, Tracy Nelson, Vincent Spano.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).