Tag Archives: The Road to Calvary

Steppe change

Writing for DQ, Alexandra Modestova, director general of Russian film and television consultancy Expocontent, explains how series such as The Road to Calvary and An Ordinary Woman are leading the rise in female-led dramas in the country.

Alexandra Modestova

The global market has started to open up to Russian drama. As stories have focused on the domestic market for the past 10 years, Russian series were known to offer traditional values – strong, powerful men who rule the world and drive the story, and women filling mostly secondary roles.

But times are changing. Since top Russian producers now focus on the global market and make series intended for worldwide audiences, they have to adapt the way Russian women are seen and presented by local television.

Female-led shows where women drive the story have begun appearing over the past few years, and that’s quite a step forward for the local industry. Among the most recent examples are Mata Hari, Mathilde, Ekaterina (pictured top), Sophia, The Road to Calvary, Better than Us and An Ordinary Woman.

The latter is a compelling example of another major change for Russian female characters: they can now be complex. Produced by Look Film and 1-2-3 Production for TV3, An Ordinary Woman centres on a married woman with two kids and a small flower shop. It turns out she is secretly running a prostitution network to fully cover her family’s needs, which her husband is incapable of doing. That might seem a radical way to help one’s family, but the story carries a great deal of irony and deep thought, depicting a strong woman in a world of weaker men.

An Ordinary Woman follows a mother who secretly runs a prostitution ring

The heroine is a mother of two daughters and a caring wife, yet she can be cynical, cold-headed, even cruel in her secret (but very real) life. She is a complicated, independently minded woman who has flaws and doesn’t fit into that typical kind of ‘perfect’ female characters who are too good to play by their own rules. So the title is significant – any ‘ordinary’ woman watching the series in any part of the world shares her character and complexities, her flaws and private thoughts. It’s no surprise that the series was immediately picked up by an international distributor, Cineflix Rights.

The series may seem to broadcast a new message for the local audience, but in fact women have always been strong in Russia, so it’s not only down to contemporary stories.

Several period dramas from Russia television and radio revolve around female leads based on real women in different times and circumstances. Ekaterina tells the story of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. She arrives in the country as a young girl and becomes the most powerful woman in Europe. Another drama, Sophia, is dedicated to the first influential woman in Russian history, Sophia Palaiologina, grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, who managed to survive in a harsh world filled with conspiracies. She supported the integration of a divided country and helped to push out invaders and build the Kremlin in Moscow.

These memorable heroines make their own way in a male-dominated world. They are smart and decisive enough to hold power and influence during periods when this was extremely unusual for women. These productions provide accurate historical context but with a modern look, so these women are similar at their core to women today: ambitious, intelligent, independent, passionate and imperfect.

The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy

Other compelling examples of shows where women dare live, feel and make mistakes are The Road to Calvary (NTV Broadcasting Company, distributed internationally by Dori Media) and Mathilde (Rock Films). The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy and follows Russian intellectuals through the revolution of 1917 and the Soviet era, telling the story of two sisters. Here an absolute classic is reinvented by and for a younger generation. The young still read classic literature but nowadays they need to look at the story through a different lens.

Mathilde, presented at Mipcom in Cannes last year with support from Made in Russia, tells a classical love story: the last Russian emperor and his affair with an attractive ballerina. Again, it shows a woman full of passion who follows her desires boldly. The whole world is against her but she is able to stand up to it.

It seems that science fiction is also seen as a place for women. Better Than Us, from Yellow Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, centres on an android who seems to have her own thoughts and intentions, and looks at the impact she has on the humans around her. She is perfectly beautiful, yet any evil intentions towards her end badly for any potential offender. The series has just been acquired by Netflix from Start Video, the rights holder, and will become the first Netflix Original from Russia.

Better Than Us will be the first Netflix Original from Russia

The android woman is played by Paulina Andreeva, a rising star of Russian TV and cinema. She also plays the lead female role in Method, a series by Sreda that was among the first Russian projects acquired by Netflix. Andreeva appears as an ambitious young law enforcement graduate who is taken on as a trainee by a famous detective, her idol. But his methods of tracking down dangerous criminals and maniacs aren’t anything like she imagined.

The past few years have seen a range of high-end shows from Russia that are driven by female leads. Although there may not be many of these yet, the Russian TV industry is going international and following global trends. This includes the necessity to let women have a distinct voice and fair representation on the screen. These days fair means complex. Like real women and like the new, younger audience, female characters have to live life on their own terms. The choices they make may be different – they might be married or single, a tender mother or child-free, a successful business woman or a housewife, even a criminal, or a combination of all these.

The main point is it’s their own choice.

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Send in the Calvary

Russian network NTV marked the centenary of the October Revolution with an adaptation of Alexey Tolstoy’s epic saga The Road to Calvary. DQ hears more about the sweeping drama from star Yulia Snigir and network producer Timur Weinstein.

The centenary of Russia’s October Revolution last year was marked on television with an epic period drama based on a novel by Alexey Tolstoy.

The Road to Calvary, which aired on NTV, captures the riotous crowds and the horrors of war, set against the stunning landscapes and architecture around St Petersburg, in a story that centres on the relationship between two sisters set between 1914 and 1920.

The civil war battle scenes involved the digging of trenches, drones and 500 extras

Dasha (Anna Chipovskaya) is stern and idealistic, while married Katya (Yulia Snigir) is careless and unhappy in her marriage. Both women fall in love with poet Alexey Bessonov, but at the outbreak of the First World War, a series of events separate the sisters and tear their family apart as they come to stand on opposing sides of the barricades.

“This is a story about how war kills people in different ways, irrespective of what side you’re fighting on,” Snigir tells DQ. “It destroys lives either way. Katya is lost in life and I think every person can say that at some point in time they made the wrong decision, they took the wrong road. Katya feels that her life is not her life, she’s living a foreign life and that’s what is destroying her. She can’t really understand her own nature.

“So she lives in a world of illusion, she’s inventing herself. She thinks she herself is very complicated and she’s attracted to very strange and complicated things. That’s why she is attracted to this guy, who is also attracted to destruction and death.”

The project was two years in the making, as the broadcaster sought to mark the centenary of the October Revolution. “The Road to Calvary is something that has been known for a long time – we all had to read it in school – and it had already been adapted for the screen twice during the Soviet period,” says Timur Weinstein, general producer at NTV.

“Yes, they were two excellent screen adaptations but they were done long ago and the real emphasis at that time was on the revolution, to ensure the fight and the victory afterwards was the focus. With this modern version, we know there were a lot of young people who don’t know about that period so we thought differently about how it should be written. We thought it should be written about two sisters and what they were dreaming about. They were just ordinary people. We also wanted to show how the revolution and the war destroyed everything – so our perspective was somewhat different compared to the previous versions.”

The Road to Calvary meant a tough winter shoot

Konstantin Khudyakov directed the series, which was adapted by Elena Raiskaya from Sisters, the first novel in Tolstoy’s The Road to Calvary trilogy.

In particular, it was the chance to star in a series based on a classic novel that appealed to Snigir, who has also appeared on the big screen opposite Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard.

“It’s not that often you’re offered a role from a script that’s based on classic literature,” she says. “A lot of Russian culture is based on Russian literature that’s known throughout the world, particularly both Tolstoys, Alexey and Leo [War & Peace].” The authors share the same surname and are also distant relatives.

The novel had already been adapted twice during the Soviet era

The source material, with the weight of its place in Russian history, also proved to be the biggest challenge for Snigir, who faced filming during the freezing winter and early spring. The inclement weather didn’t hold back the scale or ambition of the production, however. To recreate the battle scenes set during the Russian Civil War, the crew dug trenches and installed 300 metres of fencing.

Drones were used to capture the scale of the battles, which often featured upwards of 500 actors.

“Everyone has their own idea of what these characters are like and how they should be,” Snigir says. “But besides that fact, this is from classic literature, the script was very well written and it was being directed by a very famous Russian film director.”

Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir star in the period drama

With those elements in place, Weinstein believes the series is also well placed to break out on to the international market. Dori Media is handling global sales.

“Well, we think it’s a universal story – it’s about love, life and the wars,” he adds. “We’ve had a lot of adaptations being made in Russia [such as remakes of Breaking Bad and The Bridge]. But [original] Russian formats have long been deserving of international attention and international viewers.

“In the current market, we think we can overcome any barriers that have existed in the past. This is where we’re headed. I have been involved in a lot of foreign adaptations and I know that the foundation of a successful one is always a good screenplay and an interesting story. I think The Road to Calvary is exactly that.”

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