“What an immense joy this is. We’re building a huge factory. We’re building a huge city. Houses can be big, houses can be small, but it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing in the world is a happiness that is genuine. They don’t make it at factories, even the best ones. And if, by chance, you’re happy to love someone, then you need nothing else.”
These words are heard early on in Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1978). Their speaker is Lyuba (played by Nina Ruslanova), a worker addressing her fellows at the construction site of the tractor factory that they are to build. We do not see Lyuba, but rather hear her, plainly and softly, over the faces of people traveling. Her words set the tone for an enveloping film about people striving to build lives full of love.
The film’s Ukraine-based director, Kira Muratova, made Getting to Know the Big Wide World in her lone collaboration with Soviet studio Lenfilm. Beginning with Grigoriy Baklanov’s treatment, she expanded it with a number of improvised scenes. It is her first color film, and one that the still-active filmmaker has called her favorite among her own works.
Her initial films were directed in partnership with her first husband, Alexander Muratova, whom she met at film school. It was only with her first two solo features, though—Brief Encounters (1967) and Long Farewells (1971)—that Muratova believes she debuted as a filmmaker. Both films focus closely upon the psychological states of people involved in love triangles, were criticized as “bourgeois,” and circulated little prior to the 1980s arrival of glasnost. Muratova—whose delicate, tonally fine-tuned explorations of private searches for happiness differed greatly from the propagandistic Social Realist filmmaking that dominated the Soviet film industry of the 1960s and 1970s—was even banned from directing for seven years following Long Farewells’s completion.
She was in her early forties by the time she made her third solo feature, which unfolds in the present day. Its construction site’s rural location stays unnamed, but its details are rendered with freshness and clarity. The ground that people cross is often a hard-but-crumbling, the dirt’s transformations into mud corresponding to an enrichment of the color brown. Sky complements earth with a sumptuous golden yellow light that brings warmth to all it touches. Getting to Know the Big Wide World’s characters, who are often perched upon construction scaffolding, reside in suspension between these two levels.
The film comes to focus on a romantic triangle between the generous Lyuba and two fellow workers, the impish Kolya (Alexei Zharkov) and the shaggier, shyer Misha (Sergei Popov). Its openingshows Nikolai sprinting across a field to catch a seat on the truck that Misha is riding alone. The two soon become three with the arrival of Lyuba, who hitches a ride seated in between them. They eventually descend from the vehicle, and their circle widens further in the midst of a large outdoor wedding party; at the studio of a potter shaping clay into a new vessel; and then at a large edifice-in-process, ready to begin the work of building communal life.
Muratova has claimed that she chose the construction grounds as a primal site where “culture has not yet been created.” (1) Characters wander across its windowless, open-aired levels where they can both hide from and look onto their surroundings, and build physical structures and their identities at the same time. Their personalities develop over a series of loosely connected scenes. As the protagonists wander indoors and outdoors, play and talk, they approach their own shortcomings, which make each of them unique. After all, says Lyuba, love is “limitless precisely by its limitations.”
Kolya, whose personality often resembles a dark angel, fights through a bitterness that leads him to withdraw from others. Misha is ashamed of having lost a leg in a work accident three years prior and must learn to drop his shyness. (2) Despite her appearance of emotional openness, Lyuba is revealed to be wearing her own disguises and concealing her own secrets—including a longing for reunion with a lost family member—that she too reveals as the tale goes on.
These people each hold a special bizarreness, which the warm attention from each other helps bring to light. They are surrounded by similarly vibrant characters that share the factory outpost with them, including a pair of joyfully singing twins, a cheerful older moonlighting haircutter, naked children, and the many newlyweds streaming out from the nearby marriage registration office where, we are told, the longest line in town has formed.
In Muratova’s films—not just her first three solo features, but also later masterworks like The Sentimental Policeman (1992), Chekhov’s Motifs (2002), and Two in One (2007)—romantic relationships lead to opening-outs of human souls. Her characters challenge each other to acknowledge their place outside society, leaving them with the choice of joining a preexisting one together or rejecting it jointly in favor of creating something new. Love forces people to see themselves and each other, clearly and fully, and to treasure the strangeness of what they find.
Lyuba and Misha eventually take to the marriage bureau, and then lie outside on a wedding bed. As they regard their new, formally dressed images in a mirror, Kolya hurls a rock, shattering it, and walks away. While one might be tempted to read the moment as ominous, it should be remembered that in several cultures, the gesture of breaking glass at a wedding is seen as a symbol of luck.
In a recent interview, Muratova referred to cinema as “a distorting mirror, sometimes one that is smashed to pieces.” (3) Getting to Know the Big Wide World embodies such a hope. The film offers a vision of a world where all are welcome; and with its closing move, shows how simple could be the act of breaking the barrier that lies between its world and ours.
Thanks to Oleksandr Teliuk and other staff members of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre for research help.
1. Bozhovich, Viktor. Kira Muratova: Tvorcheskii portret. Moscow, 1988, p. 6. Quoted in Taubman, Jane. Kira Muratova. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2005, p. 28.
2. A fine detailing of how Misha’s forms of address change during the film can be found in Veronika Ferdman’s review of Getting to Know the Big Wide World for the online journal LOLA: http://www.lolajournal.com/4/world.html.
3. Willinger, Isa. Kira Muratova: Kino und Subversion. UVK, 2013. An English-language translation of the published interview from which this quote comes can be found online at http://www.isawillinger.de/Interview.htm.
Poznavaya belyy svet (Getting to Know the Big Wide World 1979 USSR 75 minutes)
Prod Co: Lenfilm Dir: Kira Muratova Scr: Grigoriy Baklanov (treatment), Kira Muratova Phot: Yurii Klymenko Prod des: Aleksei Rudyakov Sound des: G. Belinki Music: Valentin Silvestrov
Cast: Nina Ruslanova, Sergei Popov, Alexei Zharkov, Lyudmila Gurchenko, Natalya Leble