Life Begins At Forty: Revisiting a Soviet Classic 39 Years On

In the USSR’s Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1980), which won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards the following year, the heroine Katya proclaims: “Life begins at 40.” As the 40th anniversary of the film’s official release date approaches, it is ripe for revisiting.

Rumor has it, that Ronald Reagan watched Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears multiple times while preparing to meet Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Apocryphal or not, the story has a ring of truth. One cannot help but wonder if director Vladimir Menshov had diplomacy in mind when crafting the film, which showcases the “Russian soul” in a plot which minus some sociological particulars, seems ripped from a Hollywood “women’s picture” of the 1950s.

That genre, mostly associated with actresses like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as the director Douglas Sirk, focused on what were considered the concerns of women: family, the home, romance — typically with a healthy serving of melodrama and the occasional dash of noir. Film historian Jeanine Basinger writes that the genre was criticized for “reinforcing conventional values.” But they were not simply regressive; the films depicted women succeeding professionally (think Mildred Pierce’s titular restaurateur) and vented on-screen their frustrations with the unreliable men in their lives. This film’s gender politics are similarly complex.

But Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears was not written for international audiences. It was a massive hit upon release and is considered a beloved classic by many Russians. Developed as part of a Goskino plan to speak to more mainstream concerns (contrast the film, for example, to those of Andrei Tarkovsky’s), there is a strong nostalgic streak. After all, idealizing the ‘50s is not a uniquely American pastime.

The story opens in 1958 Moscow, where small-town girl Katya (Vera Alentova) lives in a worker’s dormitory with her two friends Lyudmila (the irrepressible Irina Muravyova) and Antonina. Katya works in a factory and unsuccessfully pursues a chemistry degree as the starry-eyed Lyudmila dreams of men and film stars. Meanwhile, the practical Antonina marries a kindhearted boy from the country.

When a wealthy professor relative of Katya’s invites her to housesit, she and Lyudmila pose as his daughters and invite eligible bachelors to entertain in hopes of finding a marriage match. Lyudmila’s hockey player beau returns her feelings, but Katya’s fate is less fortunate. She is impregnated by Rodion, a cameraman in the exciting new world of TV, and hesitates about revealing her true social status. Dishonesty, she notes is no way to begin a marriage. Her fears are well grounded, as Rodion rejects her. Following a humiliating meeting with his mother, Katya vows she will never ask them for anything.

Part two picks up in 1979 after Katya has worked her way up into the position of factory director. She lives in a flat with her young adult daughter Alexandra, but feels there is something missing. After all, she is still single. Her friendships from the dormitory have endured; Antonina is happily married and maintains a dacha with her husband. Lyudmila now works as a cleaner. She has divorced the famous hockey player who, through the intervening years, has descended into alcoholism.

Returning to Moscow from the country by elektrichka, she meets tool-and-die maker Gosha (Aleksey Batalov, in the film’s most memorable performance). She notices his filthy workers’ boots but later puts aside her prejudices. This is how you know its true love: in Russia, shoes are the ultimate marker of your status and character. Later on, Gosha will have to do away with his own masculine pride for the sake of love. He believes that marriage cannot work if the wife earns more than her husband, and Katya, in echoes of her youthful mistake, hides the true extent of her success.

True to its name, the film doesn’t milk its dramatic apexes, instead moving through its tragic and comedic moments with equanimity, most taking place over a dinner table. This motif is another example of the film’s unique Russianness – kitchens were the common spaces of the communist period, and the audience is even treated to a traditional shashlik bbq. Tragedies are never the end of the world – tears are brief, never shot in the glamorous close-ups given to Crawford or Lana Turner. In each situation, friends become like family.

Four decades have passed and both the USSR and the US have changed dramatically (one, in the sense of no longer existing). Despite the ubiquity of capitalism and American brands in Russia today, it is harder to imagine a contemporary Russian film resonating quite as deeply as Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears did at the time. Yet watching the movie in 2019 it does not feel stale. Its sexual politics do appear darker, particularly Gosha’s refusal to be spoken to harshly by Katya – in her own flat no less, but themes of supportive friendship and mature love remain universal.

And good news for cinephiles – Mosfilm provides many of its classics, including this one, for free online with English subtitles.