Set in a small Ukrainian village during the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941 Private Chonkin, not overly endowed with intelligence, is left to guard a downed military aircraft.
Beginning in 1941, just before the Nazis dragged the USSR into World War II, this chucklesome Russian language film strikes a rich vein of satire as it pokes fun at Stalinism and the army which supported it. Coming across like a weird hybrid of Dad’s Army and Last Of The Summer Wine, the film is based on a legendary book, written by Vladimir Voinovich in the late 70s, which was branded “the Russian Catch-22” when smuggled out to the Western world in 1979 and which thereafter saw its author persecuted, deported and banned.
But whereas Joseph Heller’s novel found grim humour in the futility of war, The Life And Extraordinary Adventures Of Private Ivan Chonkin (as it is fully titled) makes playful hay at the expense of the powers-that-be’s attempts to control the lives of simple, country folk.
The titular soldier (Nazarov) is ordered to a remote collective farming community to stand sentry over a stranded military plane. But Chonkin prefers to lie horizontally (and frequently) with the village postmistress Nyura (Buryak). As the collective’s chairman (Iljin) orders the accountant (Yuri Dubrovin) to cook the books in order to meet impossible production targets, the rest of the village drink vodka from a still hidden behind a party flag and local nutcase Gladyshev (Alexander Zarkov) tries to develop a brave new world from, er, shit — the village’s most plentiful commodity.
At the hands of Czech director Menzel (who won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1967’s Closely Observed Trains) this all makes for plenty to giggle at but scores low on guffaws until the steadily brewing military subplot explodes into a farcical finalé of mistaken identity and mindboggling incompetence. Private Ivan Chonkin is a witty lampoon of the absurdities of communism that while leaving your sides may intact explains, if it holds more than a grain of truth, why the Soviet Union fell apart.
Skates a thin line between witty and clever-clever