Zhila-byla Odna Baba

 (2011; Russia; aka "There Was A Simple Woman")

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film asks the question, "What was it like to be a Russian peasant woman in the Tambov region between 1909 and 1921?" and answers by showing that it sucked worse than just about anything else has ever sucked in human existence. In that time of troubles, Russia went through WW1, the overthrow of the Tsar, the Soviet-Polish war, and several years of civil war. The era was even more violent in the Tambov region, because the locals counter-revolted against the Bolsheviks, who then suppressed them mercilessly. The Bolsheviks' barbaric response to the Tambov Rebellion was a favorite subject of Solzhenitsyn.

Even when the villages were relatively unscathed by fighting, a woman's life could be an unremitting hell in those days. Married to a drunk, beaten, whipped, raped at the pleasure of her husband and his family, the "simple woman" in the film was a virtual slave. Life was miserable in summer, unbearable in winter. If she thought her existence couldn't get any worse, she was wrong. When the soldiers came, her life was pretty much non-stop rape, except for the occasional break for a beating or some starvation or the deaths of her children or for her home and village to be burned down.

And those were the good times.

In the film's climax, an entire village is destroyed by a flood.

This is pretty much the most depressing existence you will ever see on film. And - get this - the Russian Wikipedia page says (translated), "According to historians, the events in the film have a documentary basis, although in reality it was even worse." In other words, this film gave us the sugar-coated version of her existence. It's difficult for us in America to imagine how much worse it could have been.

Writer/director Andrey Smirnov spent a good part of his adult life creating this 2011 film. His previous film came out in 1979, and he worked on this one intermittently from 1987 onward. He did a vast amount of research on the Tambov region of Russia, having visited the region several times to study the customs, culture and dialect of the local Mordva-Moksha people, a distinct ethnic group. He shot the entire film on location in the actual area where the action took place, but didn't take off the lens caps until he had made the principal actors live in the area long enough to learn to mimic the speech of the locals. One of the actors, who did not speak English, recalled that he once had to perform a role phonetically in English, and found that easier than performing in the local Tambov dialect, which is barely comprehensible to a speaker of standard Russian.

The director himself said, "Я думаю, это кино не для Запада." ("I don't think this film is for the West.") I'd say he's nailed that one, in the sense that Western audiences generally seek some elements of entertainment as the sweet juice necessary to swallow the bitter pill of an unpleasant history lesson. This film offers only the pill. I can't speak for the entire West, but I can say, "Я думаю, это кино не для меня."("It sure ain't for me, sparky.") I never became inured to the brutality in the film. It's an unpleasant and uncomfortable film to watch, and I wasn't especially interested in the obscure Tambov Rebellion in the first place. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the historically accurate portrayal of village life, especially of a wedding ceremony and the accompanying celebration. The cinematography in this film is dazzling, so the film may be fascinating if you want to learn about the customs and costumes of one part of rural Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, as portrayed by a man who spent a quarter of a century researching the details.

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6.9 IMDB summary (of 10)




  • Darya Yedamasova exposes everything multiple times.


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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Heartfelt, well-researched, and competent, but extremely unpleasant to watch.