Set to the soundtrack of constantly switching radio stations — from World Cup broadcasts to French music and English news — the opening sequence of July Rain (1966) paints Moscow as a radiant, international city. The titular downpour breaks out suddenly, catching Muscovites off guard and stopping them in their tracks. One young woman, Lena, doesn’t have time to wait out the storm, so a stranger, Zhenya, gives her his jacket. This encounter will change their lives — but it will be a slow burn.
At first, it seems that engineer Lena is perfectly happy in her relationship with Volodya, a hopeful PhD candidate trying to solve the freshwater crisis — even if she is in no rush to make her relatives happy and marry. Instead, the couple have plenty of friends and acquaintances, all members of the intelligentsia. There is always a party to go to, where they can dance to fashionable music and exchange endless witticisms. But other events, as sudden as the summer rain, make Lena grow tired of these ultimately superficial conversations, and look for something more meaningful.
Shot in black-and-white and featuring a number of long takes, July Rain draws inspiration from the French New Wave — although the film’s take on emotional alienation, existential doubt, and crumbling relationships make it similar to the work of Italian great Michelangelo Antonioni. Yet, there is another motif that is so often present in Soviet 1960s cinema: the memory of the Second World War. In their late 20s, the film’s central characters barely remember the war themselves. But reminders of the conflict are ubiquitous. When the friends go camping and gather to tell horror stories, their older companion Alik shares a memory from the war. The audience understands that this gap between generations is almost impossible to bridge.
Filmed at the very end of the Khrushchev Thaw, a period of relative creative and political freedom, July Rain received a limited domestic release and was condemned for its “pretentiousness” and “aestheticism”. More recently, however, the film has been restored and rightfully celebrated as a masterpiece of Soviet cinema. Among other accolades, director Marlen Khutsiev is often praised for capturing the zeitgeist of the 60s — even though more than half a century later, the story and aesthetic of his film feel as fresh and relevant as ever.
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