In science fact as well as science fiction the Soviet Union often got there first. First into space, first to the Moon, Mars and Venus, all mighty achievements by an empire whose successes have all subsequently been overshadowed by the regime’s ultimate failure.
So how about Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future? Did it really boldly go in 1973 where Marty McFly and the Doc wouldn’t venture until 12 years later? No, is the short answer. The longer one is that this film had a different title originally – Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (or Ivan Vasilievich Menyaet Professiyu in the original Russian) – and it was its US distributors who renamed it, in an attempt to cash in on the success of Robert Zemeckis’s movie.
It didn’t work but it was a bold try. In a way the film doesn’t need the help. It is its own beast, a Soviet-era comedy that’s well made, slickly acted, and with enough going on at the periphery to make it also fascinating as a document of the era.
The “Back to the Future” bit isn’t entirely fanciful. There is a time machine and two people are transported in it, but it’s a case of back to the past, not the future, for buildings supervisor Ivan (Yury Yakovlev) and petty thief George (Leonid Kuravlyov), who wind up in the time of Ivan the Terrible after smalltime inventor Aleksandr, known as “Shurik”, transports them there, in the process bringing Tsar Ivan into the present.
Ivan the buildings supervisor and Ivan the Terrible happen to look almost identical, which is handy because the rest of the film hangs on the comedy of mistaken identity as back in the past the diffident Soviet Man tries to keep up the pretence of being the all-powerful Tsar, while in the present the Tsar of all the Russias gets to grips with 1970s technology and customs.
The effect is Danny Kaye (The Court Jester era) meets Monty Python (Yakovlev bears a passing resemblance to John Cleese) meets Benny Hill (there is much use of speeded-up film). Aleksandr Demyanenko’s speccy inventor Shurik – think Rick Moranis and you’re most of the way there – starts out looking like he’s going to to be the film’s focus but in fact its undoubted star is Yakovlev, who has the best material to work with and manages to be funny both as the Tsar and the modern-day Ivan.
Some jokes do not translate that well, like people in the modern era attempting to speak olde-worlde Russian when talking to the Tsar, something the subtitlers do their best with but is probably funnier if you’ve got a working knowledge of Russian. Other elements do make it across the language barrier – shortages, the black marketeers, the way a packet of Marlboro takes on the status of a holy relic at one point, and the running joke about eggplant caviare (the real stuff is in short supply) all speak to the Soviet Union’s isolation and the siege-economy mentality of rationing and scarcity.
Director Leonid Gaidai was one of the stalwarts of Soviet comedy, and often worked with Demyanenko – whose Shurik character turned up in a number of Gadai’s movies. The composer Aleksandr Zatsepin was another regular and there’s plenty here for lovers of the optimistic space age/easy listening style Zatsepin specialised in and now known as Sovietwave. It’s also a fabulous looking film. The scenes set back in the 16th century benefit from the sort of stupendous locations a Hollywood epic would kill for, and the lensing of DPs Vitali Abramov and Sergei Poluyanov is lushly colourful (except when the film briefly shifts to black and white).
A well made and well played film. Funny? Yes, frequently, in a knockabout way but with the odd barb beneath its extremely good natured exterior.
Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2023