CLEAR SKIES (Soviet Union / 1961)
The fact that war features prominently in Soviet filmmaker Grigori Chukhrais early works shouldnt come as a surprise. Chukhrai, who was born in 1921 in Militopol, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, honorably served as a paratrooper during W.W.II, meriting numerous military honors for his courage (he was severely wounded on a number of occasions during this process). After returning from the war in 1946, Chukhrai entered Moscows famous State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), where he studied under the likes of Sergei Yutkevich and Mikhail Romm. Upon graduating in 1953, Chukhrai decided to go to Kievs Dovzhenko Studios to work as an assistant, but later returned to Moscow and Mosfilm Studios to direct his debut feature, The Forty-First (1956), a Russian Civil War parable in which a no-nonsense Red female sniper falls for a White POW and is later forced to choose between her ideologies and love. Winner of a Special Award at Cannes 57 "for original script, humanism and poetics," the film is distinguished by its exquisite desert vistas, courtesy of the renowned cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky (who went on to cement his name in cinema history with such remarkable films as The Cranes are Flying  and I Am Cuba ). "A vehemently original, beautiful, humorous, patriotic, sentimental journey through war-churned Russia" (Time), Chukhrais second, and arguably his best, effort, Ballad of a Soldier (1959), garnered the prestigious Lenin Prize along with winning a number of top awards on the festival circuit. This surprisingly propaganda-free film even fetched Chukhrai and his co-writer Valentin Yezhov an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Writing, Story and Screenplay.
Chukhrais third feature, Clear Skies (Chistoe nebo) -- a dynamic and affecting war-time melodrama -- holds significance due to the fact that it was one of the very first films to deal with the repressive post-W.W.II era under Stalin. Made during the brief period referred to as "thaw," in which Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and attempted to restore order, the film opens in an almost fairy-tale fashion as we witness a spirited teenage girl, Sasha (Nina Drobysheva), and her mature older sister (Natalya Kuzmina) playing the games of love and chance with the opposite sex. It isnt long though that war gets declared, and the latter is evacuated to another city. Once the duos father is called up for duty, Sasha is left alone and is forced to fend for herself . One night, while hiding in an air-raid shelter, she comes across an off-duty military pilot, Aleksei (Yevgeny Urbansky, who had a small role in Ballad), she used to idealize, and hesitantly decides to make a pitch for him. Romance ensues but tragedy strikes once Aleksei goes missing and is presumed dead.
Playing a character who in many ways is just as strong and doggedly determined as that of Izolda Izvitskaya's Maryutka from The Forty-First, Drobysheva gives a wonderful performance, especially in the second half of the film as she raises a child by herself and refuses to compromise her principles. And it is at this point that Chukhrai initiates his political agenda: in one sequence, Sasha gets photographed for a newspaper as a satisfied and enterprising factory worker even though the reality couldnt be farther from the truth. But more importantly, the matter is related through the predicament which arises when a celebrated war hero makes his return home and is immediately scorned and marginalized and gets withdrawn from the Communist Party.
While all the sentimentality could perhaps be grating at times, the film isn't shy about wearing its emotions on its sleeves, and thus offers a grand, full-bodied viewing experience. Perfectly symbolizing the calamity of war for everyone involved, Clear Skies's greatest sequence, which comprises of an onrushing train brimming with soldiers and their loved ones eagerly awaiting on the platform to catch a glimpse, is comparable to any found in Chukhrai's earlier efforts. The film won the Golden Star Grand Prize at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival and was later honored in the U.S. at San Francisco. By most accounts, Chukhrai only directed four more features over the next forty years. He died in Moscow in 2001 at the age of 80.