What? You don't know Kira Muratova? That scourge of censors both Soviet and perestroikan, that master and mad mistress of aesthetic assault and battery, that bag lady of the mind? The septuagenarian genius makes movies like torched meth labs, crazed with surrealist rage over Russia's decay, defiantly free-associative. The old bat simply knows no fear, as proved by this brain-assailing, six-title retrospective from the Film Society of Lincoln Center being presented at the Northwest Film Forum.
So what makes Muratova a chronic winner at the Russian Oscars (three this year), capable of selling out 500-seat Moscow cinemas, and prompting monkish scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum to call her "the greatest living Russian filmmaker"? Check out her Fellini-esque 1971 phantasmagoria Long Farewells, about a divorcée's campaign to keep her teenage son tangled in knotty apron strings; Brief Encounters, the banned 1967 love-triangle tale starring herself and "the Soviet Bob Dylan"; the truly astounding 1989 freak-out film The Asthenic Syndrome, a Dostoyevskian vaudeville about the maniac widow of a man resembling Stalin and a narcoleptic teacher obsessed with busts of Lenin; the Seattle premiere of her greatest popular hit, the mildly nutty Passions, about a circus girl's crush on an injured jockey and the horses he rode in on; Three Stories, which Muratovaniks call her perverse version of Pulp Fiction; and Chekhov's Motifs, her melding of the good doctor's tales with a satire of an Orthodox wedding.
The one that gives you the biggest my- arcana-can-lick-your-arcana bragging rights is the 153-minute Asthenic Syndrome (1989). Don't try to deduce its linear narrative meaning—it's just a bunch of reveries expressing anger over Odessa's ridiculous tyrannies, including the mobbed-up chaos that followed communism. First, it's a rant flick starring the widow, abusing everyone in sight; this turns out to be a film within a film, and the only viewer who doesn't walk out is the slumbering hero of the framing narrative. Don't walk out yourself, or you'll miss many searingly weird scenes and rhyming visuals, like the passing sunlight and subway lights that, respectively, make sped-up sundials of each seat on a bus the widow rides and the teacher's subterranean train.
Where else can you see Beckett pastiche, epic claustral close-ups, and parlor games where the party-goers must strip and semi-costume themselves in the bitterest possible parody of the concept of love? You'll never hear stranger dueling versions of "Strangers in the Night," Ukrainian pop tunes, and "Winchester Cathedral." When moviegoing pain is this interesting, it becomes a kind of bizarro-world pleasure.
Take No Prisoners: The Bold Vision of Kira Muratova. Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave.; 206-267-5380, www.nwfilmforum.org.; Fri., June 24–Wed., June 29.