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'Oblomov' -- Russia's story of a fabolous idler

"Oblomov" has been described as "an Odysseym of the slippers, or an Iliadm of the dressing gown." Its unlikely hero is a man "blissfully lost in a nirvana of his own making," as scholar Renato Poglioli puts it.

Now there's a movie incarnation of Oblomov -- who might be the most wonderful layabout in literature, a fabulously idle character who takes several chapters just to rouse himself from bed. As in the original novel, the plot centers on his affection for a beautiful woman, and his poignant attempt to merit her love by rising above his normal torpor. Once again, it doesn't work.

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Ivan Goncharov published "Oblomov" in 1858. It's a fine book -- less dense and monumental than works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, yet woven with rare skill and charged with great emotional power.

The new movie version comes from Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov. Like his earlier American success, "A Slave of Love" -- about a filmmaking crew in revolutionary Russia -- the screen "Oblomov" has been promptly overpraised by many critics, who may be reacting to their fond memories of the novel. Though the movie picks up steam as it goes along, the first portion is hopelessly stagy , and Mikhalkov rarely captures the complexity of Oblomov's love for Olga, or the nuances of his relationship with Stoltz, the "man of action" who is his closest friend.

Whatever the shortcomings of his latest epic, though, Mikhalkov deserves credit for establishing unusually firm links with American audiences. At a time when few Soviet films are making it to the United States, two hits in a row become a regular winning streak. I met recently with Mikhalkov (who is also a well-known actor) and Oleg Tabokov, who plays the leading role. Both men were delighted at the warm critical reception their film was alreay receiving.

But they seemed a bit surprised, too. I asked Mikhalkov if he had expected "Oblomov" to score in the United States, and he said, "No -- or in my country, either." He felt he was making an "art film," meant for small and receptive audiences. The popularity of "Oblomov" is a happy bonus as far as he's concerned.

As in the United States, according to Mikhalkov, "the average Russian audience -- the audience that helps you earn your money back -- prefers shorter films. Yet when people do see 'Oblomov,' it makes an impression on them. They want to see it again, and they ask for it to return to their theaters. A picture like this doesn't just die away, like an ordinary thriller, for example. I think 'Oblomov' will gradually earn as much as a thriller. More and more, people are saying they enjoy 'Jaws' but prefer a movie like 'Tess.'"

To a limited but encouraging extent, the same holds true for American spectators, who have lately supported such long and leisurely imports as "Tess," "Kagemusha," and now "Oblomov." Generally, it's critics who start the ball rolling for "art movies" like these, so I asked Mikhalov his opinion of American reviewers who have opinioned on his recent pictures.

"I have the feeling that American critics like clarity and explanation," he replied. "They are more materialistic then we are. They want to touch everything with their hands, and all that matters is the instant result.

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"But there are things that must be felt rather than touched. That's the story of Oblomov: He felt more than he could 'figure out,' and he suffered for that. But his friend Stoltz, the man of action, was even more unhappy -- because he understood more, and felt less."

In tackling "Oblomov," Mikhalkov wanted to treat the tale from a moral as well as a social viewpoint -- "to deal with the purpose of living, by making clear why this man acted as he did.I didn't try to justify him, and it would have been pointless to use him as a mere condemnation of wealthy behavior under the Czars. It tried to tell the story with love, and show how Oblomovism is not really cured by Stoltzism. Pragmatism alone is no solution."

Mikhalov knew "Oblomov would be a risky project, because the novel is so well known and "so rich in story and ideas." Yet he had one less worry than Hollywood moviemakers do, in that Soviet films don't rely on the whims of independent distribution companies. The government runs the distribution system, through offices in each republic and each district of the USSR. In theory, films are distributed according to merit, not momentary box-office appeal. There's plenty of opportunity for error, according to Mikhalov, "but we don't depend so much on making a big impact with action and dynamics."

Is there much in common between today's Soviet and American films? Says Mikhalkov: "Though we have many similarities, our national character is different, and every director puts his national character into his work.

"But the character of a film depends on the geography of where it was made, and here we share quite a lot. If you live near the Atlantic or Pacific, you can make a film with a lot of space -- and it's the same if you live with the mountains of Siberia behind you. That makes Americans and Soviets different from the European filmmakers.

"And also, in the best films from either America or the Soviet Union, you can identify the handwriting of the person who made it. In Hollywood, for instance, you can identify a Coppola or Scorsese pictue by their styles. Most films just want to be spectacles for the average audience. But thesem films are the mirrors of their directors -- and there aren't too many like this, in your country or mine!"

As an example of current Soviet filmmaking, "Oblomov" reflects a generous attitude toward cimematic space and time, and indicates the perennial popularity of historical subjects -- "which is more natural for us," says Mikhalkov, "because our history has such a different scale." It also reflects the most serious ambitions of Mikhalkov himself, who considers "visual imagination" to be the essence of moviemaking.

"In an article on Pushkin, a Russian historian wrote: A hero is a poet of action; but a poetm is a hero of visual imagination." Mikhalkov glows with enthusiasm as he speaks these words -- clearly thrilled that his own imagination has struck responsive chords in moviegoers separated by half a world.

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