“Underseen” is a new, ongoing series where I highlight exceptional titles that have gone unfairly overlooked or underseen.
“He set out on a journey boring,
wrapped tightly in a cloak he wore.
The coach’s bell, its voice imploring,
rang, rang, and then was heard no more.”
— Mikhail Lermontov
In 1975, Soviet filmmaker and actor Sergei Solovyov won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival for his film Sto dney posle detstva (One Hundred Days After Childhood), thus joining a crowd of illustrious, worldwide filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, and Robert Aldrich. Over four decades later, directors Éric Rohmer, Jan Troell, Asghar Farhari, Miloš Forman, Mia Hansen-Løve, and Richard Linklater, among other greats, have joined this lauded rank of recognized creatives. Rightfully so, Solovyov’s beautifully realized and lyrically rich coming-of-age tale places him among giants, and yet his films have gone virtually unmentioned outside of Russia.
One Hundred Days concerns the understated and meandering romantic lives of a group of early teens over the course of an idyllic summer camp retreat. Solovyov’s film tracks a geometric distribution of uneven and multivalent affections between his primary characters. To put it as plainly as one can: Mitya loves Lena; Sonya loves Mitya; Lena loves Gleb; and Gleb loves himself. Foolishly single-minded Mitya mistakes Sonya’s feelings for platonic companionship, and so he confides in her his own romantic feelings for Lena and generates a tension which inevitably leads to an angsty confessional finale. Mitya assumes only he can understand the pains of unrequited love, but he is oblivious to the affections his friend Sonya bears for him—a perfect distillation of the myopia of young love.
The delicate nuances between the burgeoning and mercurial desires, jealousies, self-fashioned images, and imaginations of all these young people are as believably realized as any bildungsroman, while the heights of emotional discovery and intellectual excitement are faithfully, lovingly preserved and respected. Solovyov does not patronize his teens, nor does he cynically undercut their experiences or feelings; he deals with their troubles seriously, comically if necessary, but handled always with sensitivity and insight. Where the interpersonal relationships and naivety of youth are captured authentically, the landscape and setting and production are resplendent and dazzling, invoking an expressionism to reflect the wonder and the disquietude of adolescence.
Solovyov shoots in painterly compositions and generates an airy, dream-like tranquility. The summer camp, like a Soviet satellite, is a utopian space, apart from the real world, devoted to individual growth, contemplation, intellectual development, and free-wielding laying-about and mulling-over. (Mubi contributor Veronika Ferdman makes the argument that Solovyov’s film represents a “cinematic paradise.”) It’s a world impossibly covered in green and swept through by the wind. One Hundred Days is visually lush and photographically gorgeous, each moment meticulously crafted to invoke a serenity.
In the opening scene, the film fades-in on Mitya turning in his bed, as if in a dream. He slowly turns over from his stomach—the frames are in the slightest slow-motion, or maybe they aren’t? Now on his back, the camera cuts to the morning air stirring him awake. A clock (which could be heard ticking moments before, now overwhelmed by a Soviet romantic composition on the soundtrack) and some flowers in a vase each rest upon a windowsill, arranged like a sparse still life. The doors of the window are wide open, a fulsome green meadow and the tree line beyond it (each bathed in the light of early morning) envelope the frame-within-a-frame created by the window. And the wind rushes in, causing the white curtains to dance, twirling along with the soundtrack. The camera cuts again and branches, covered in deep green leaves, sway in the breeze—the camera has moved right up to the tree line, and the green engulfs the frame.
Solovyov uses an incredibly soft focus here, blurring much of the scene and so creating an unreal, ethereal image. Adolescence as a memory, as a dream, a fantasy, and a world as if seen through tears. The summer camp is the perfect setting because it grants the safety and magical retreat so important in fostering ourselves, in exploring what is possible in life, and so readying us to enter adulthood (so burdened by responsibility and the weight of foreknowledge). Naivety becomes a blank slate, a bed sheet pulled across a stage—an actor reading a scene for the first time—to reflect the world and bring forth emotional and intellectual maturity, along with deeply felt emotions, all aggravated by puberty. As the body changes, the world, itself ever-changing, appears as something different, something new.
The camp in Solovyov’s film is meant for creative children, where the arts are encouraged, plays are staged, musical instruments are taught and, between requisite lessons insinuating adult responsibilities and lazy days near the lake, campers become students of art history, attempting to understand the mysteries behind Mona Lisa and the metaphysical soul of a raw stone before it’s sculpted by an artist. The lead camp counselor is importantly an artist, a sculptor, and he does his very best to mold the teenagers at the camp, to introduce them to the wonders and complexities of art and nature and so marshal them into adulthood. In this way, and through formal fancies, Solovyov’s film is self-aware and self-referential. Following the credit sequence, a child introduces the lead counselor to all of the principle players of the film, one after another, preceded by a comically self-reflexive inter-title which reads “Who is who?” As the child looks through binoculars at each character (he explains “my eyesight is not so good”), the camera reverse-shots to a medium, or close-up, of whomever he’s describing. It’s an expository device which recalls the sort of whimsy characteristic of a Wes Anderson film.
Later in One Hundred Days, the children begin work on a stage-play to be performed for their peers at the end of their stay at camp. The play is Russian romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov’s 1835 Masquerade. Mitya, the film’s ostensible hero, wars with his romantic rival for the lead of the play, to perform as the romantic interest opposite his offstage muse. The unpalatable results appear in the still-frame that heads this article, in the dejected look on Mitya’s face; art reflects life but not always how we may hope. Unhappy in the role he had previously fought for, Mitya begins to resent his fate, to play the love of a girl who will not love him back, on the stage or elsewhere. He channels his pain and his director and his peers proclaim “he understands the character!”
This revelation, to bring personal feeling into art, provides Mitya no solace in his real-life romantic pursuit. But still, he’s only fourteen; he has a lot to learn. When Sonya finally reveals her own feelings for Mitya, his empathetic impulse reaches not from his life to his art, but through his life into the experience of another person, a living person. He comes to understand he is not the only person suffering, who is longing for something beyond himself, something unknown and beautiful but that does not even suspect him. Solovyov’s cinematic paradise is beautiful and dream-like, but does not omit the meanness, the selfishness, or the myopia of adolescence. As I said before, Solovyov takes the trouble of his characters seriously. When his characters falter, he can offer reconciliation and remembrance, and where One Hundred Days is sweet, it’s even more bittersweet, approaching the very definition of the word.
Sergei Solovyov’s Sto dney posle detstva (One Hundred Days After Childhood) is criminally under-available on home video or streaming platforms. I do not believe it has ever received theatrical distribution in the United States. If you want to see it, you should search for the film on YouTube.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.