Eldar Ryazanov, a filmmaker who satirized and romanticized the life of ordinary Russians in his immensely popular comedies for almost six decades, died on Monday. He was 88.
His death in a Moscow hospital, due to what family members said was heart failure, was met with a deep sense of loss. President Vladimir Putin mourned him as a “real master and creator” whose films have become “true classics of Russian cinema and part of our national heritage, part of the history of our country.”
Ryazanov was a household name in Russia, and his films are arguably the most recognizable titles in Soviet popular culture.
His films ridiculed Soviet bureaucracy and lifestyle, but the lightness of his satires helped him dodge Communist censorship. Only one of his works was banned by Soviet censors: the 1961 comedy “A Man From Nowhere” about a noble savage from an imaginary primitive tribe who visits the Soviet Union and is amused and shocked by its people and customs.
Once compared to U.S. director Billy Wilder for his artistic diversity and longevity, Ryazanov directed almost 30 films, most of which became box-office hits and spawned countless Russian catchphrases and popular jokes. Most of his films were centered on an improbable or purely fantastic event that turned the boredom of daily life into a vortex of comic escapades with an obligatory happy ending.
From the early 1950s, Ryazanov also wrote scripts and briefly appeared in his films, usually playing unsympathetic strangers whose presence added another ironic dimension to the plot.
Years after the 1991 Soviet collapse, he acknowledged that fear of the Soviet government had dominated his life. "Every time I worked (on a film), I had to force a slave out of myself and overcome my fear of Soviet authorities," Ryazanov told the Narodnaya Gazeta daily in 2008.
His most popular film, the 1975 comedy “The Irony of Fate,” mocked what Communist ideologues hailed as the pinnacle of a planned economy _ the clusters of identical apartment buildings located on streets with identical names located in cities around the country.
It follows a dead-drunk surgeon who gets on a plane on New Year’s Eve to what was then Leningrad and makes his way into an apartment whose address, door locks and even furniture are identical to his brand new residence in Moscow. The real owner is a fair-haired, blue-eyed schoolteacher engaged to a dull bureaucratic type. She finds the hung-over intruder on her sofa and helps him realize he is hundreds of miles away from his home.
The showing of the film on national television channels on New Year’s Eve has become as big a part of the celebrations as the champagne flutes and Russian salad on family tables, while other films by Ryazanov are nearly as ubiquitous.
Ryazanov was born in 1927 in Samara, a city on the Volga River, into the family of a Soviet economist who was imprisoned during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. He gained immediate popularity in 1953 _ the year of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's death _ with his first feature film, “Carnival Night.” His forays into period dramas _ such as “The Cruel Romance,” his 1984 film about a 19th century Russian woman from an impoverished aristocratic family who is shot dead by her jealous fiancé _ won him critical praise.
His films after the Soviet collapse were far less successful and brought mixed reviews.
Ryazanov is survived by his wife Emma and daughter Olga. They didn’t immediately release details for his funeral arrangements.