Autumn Marathon Review

A gentle, bittersweet tragicomedy, Autumn Marathon is about a middle-aged translator, Andrei Buzykin (Oleg Basilashvili), whose almost pathological niceness has trapped him in a seemingly endless series of awkward situations: his inability to turn anyone down has left him juggling a wife and mistress, on top of vast amounts of additional work usually done as unpaid favours for friends and students that's constantly interfering with his own projects to the point where his career is put at risk.

And because he can't bear to hurt anyone, he's always taking the easy way out - which invariably means constructing a vast edifice of lies that he can't possibly keep track of, which has the equally inevitable side-effect of turning a fundamentally decent if weak-willed man into what looks like the epitome of a philandering boor. Half the time, his excuses are entirely genuine - he really did help his Danish friend Bill Hansen (Norbert Kuchinke) at a drying-out clinic, and stayed up all night with his less talented colleague Varvara (Galina Volchek) to help her on a difficult translation, but this counts for little when he's so widely disbelieved. The title refers to his regular early morning jogging sessions with Bill - again, he'd much rather be doing something else, like staying in bed, but how can he possibly say no?

Andrei's most immediate problem is that he can't choose between his long-suffering wife Nina (Natalya Gundareva) or his naively optimistic secretary-cum-mistress Alla (Marina Neyolova). Both are well aware of each other's existence, but both choose to blame Andrei - not unreasonably under the circumstances. When he returns home wearing a flashy new jacket that Alla has given him, it's painfully clear that Nina knows exactly where it came from, and even more painful watching Andrei's face as she constructs a pretext for cutting it up.

Finally, roughly halfway through the film, Andrei is reluctantly dragged off on a dismal woodland mushroom-picking trip by an aggressively enthusiastic neighbour. Something snaps in him, and he decides to speak his mind - and returns home with the full intention of turning over a new leaf and adopting a policy of total honesty with wife, mistress, boss and students. But is this the right thing to do, or will he end up even more miserable than before?

Both in tone and content, Autumn Marathon reminded me very much of Alan Bennett's work - or, to cite a single point of comparison, Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, though Andrei is like Billy Fisher a couple of decades on: youthful ambition has given way to resigned acceptance that he'll never amount to anything much (he's constantly deflecting praise for his work by stressing that he's a mere translator), and fantasies about a better future are cast aside in favour of just trying to keep his present existence on track.

Autumn Marathon is generally regarded as the best of director Georgy Danelia's sixteen-odd films (he's been active since the late 1950s), and the closest he came to achieving a perfect balance between gentle comedy and moral philosophy, something he characterised as 'sad comedy' (the film labels itself in those terms in the opening credits). It's very much in line with similarly wistful, subtly ironic comedies being made in Georgia at the time by directors like Otar Iosseliani and Eldar Shengelaya, which in turn remind me strongly of the classic Czech tragicomedies of the 1960s, of which Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains and Milos Forman's early films are probably the best known examples. And if you liked any of those, it's a pretty safe bet that you'll like this.

Autumn Marathon isn't the kind of film where print and transfer quality is a particularly major issue - and in the event it gets a resoundingly average one. The print is in reasonable condition, though there are quite a few spots and scratches (it's noticeably worse than many other Ruscico prints of this vintage). The colours are somewhat muted, though this may well be deliberate - it certainly fits the film's generally low-key ambience. Technically, there's not a lot wrong with the transfer - a high bitrate means negligible artefacting, and the picture is sharp enough for any grain to be blamable squarely on the original materials. The aspect ratio is 4:3, and there's no sign that this isn't what it should be - it's what I'd have expected for a small-scale Soviet film of this era.

The sound was originally mono, and the 5.1 remix largely respects this: there are a few surround sounds but I didn't really hear anything in the way of subwoofer effects - and there's next to no scope for them in the first place. Technically, the recording is fine, but as with the picture you don't need much more than clear dialogue with this particular film. The English subtitles are, as usual for this label, excellent, and the English dub is acceptable, though it's unlikely anyone attracted to this film will prefer it to the original Russian. There are 29 chapter stops - more than enough for an 89-minute film.

The extras are a standard Ruscico set: the usual brace of filmographies covers director Georgy Danelia, writer Alexander Volodin, cameraman Sergei Vronsky, composer Andrei Petrov and actors Oleg Bassilashvili, Marina Neyolova, Natalya Gundareva, Yevgheny Leonov, Galina Volchek and Nikolai Kriuchkov. Sadly, there are no buried extras, so I had to amuse myself wondering what films called The Whiner (1966), Old Salt Character (1970), Single People Are Provided With Hostel Accommodation (1983), Aelita, Stop Harassing Men! (1988) or Hi There, You Fools! (1996) were like and whether the titles had lost anything in translation.

The original theatrical trailer is also included, as are trailers for Solaris, Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears and At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own, all either in dubbed English or with an obtrusive English voice-over (though if you select the Russian or French menus you can get the trailer in those languages too, albeit without subtitles).

The final extra, cryptically labelled 'Music by Andrei Petrov', is a truncated soundtrack album, which consists of extracts from Petrov's music score accompanied by a selection of colour stills from the film. Annoyingly, this is presented in one single 20-minute chunk with no chapter subdivisions.

Although it's a fairly low-key DVD by Ruscico standards, the presentation of the main film is fine, and Autumn Marathon itself is a little gem - one of the most pleasant discoveries I've made in my ongoing trawl through their catalogue, and one that bodes well for other Georgian comedies that should emerge over the next few months - which includes one other film by Danelia (Mimino) and Eldar Shengelaya's highly-regarded Blue Mountains.

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