The biggest box office hit in the history of the Soviet Union was an early 1970s Mexican romance so obscure in its home country that even many experts on the era haven’t heard of it. Host Rico Gagliano talks with several who have, including esteemed cinema historian Ian Christie, Concordia University’s Masha Salazkina, and actress Emoé de la Parra, the daughter of the hugely successful author Yolanda Vargas Dulché behind the comic book and telenovela on which the film was based.
Our first season, titled “Lost in Translation,” spotlights movies that were massive cultural phenomena in one country, but nowhere else. With episodes spanning nearly every continent, tune in weekly to discover unique film stories from around the globe.
Each episode, we publish a complementary piece in a new series called “MUBI Podcast Expanded.” This week, film professor and historian Masha Salazkina adds to her commentary featured in this episode, discussing her love for international films growing up in the Soviet Union in the late 70s and early 80s. Read the article here.
MUBI is a global streaming service, production company and film distributor. A place to discover and watch beautiful, interesting, incredible films. A new hand-picked film arrives on MUBI, every single day. From iconic directors, to emerging auteurs. All carefully chosen by MUBI’s curators.
[Rico Gagliano] Heads up. This episode includes spoilers. [Murmured conversation] [Rico] 1975. A movie theater in the former Soviet Union. In the audience that day, the late Maya Turovskaya, one of the great Soviet film critics, who is there to check out a romantic historical melodrama. [Projector clicks, whirs] ..called Yesenia. [Romantic orchestral music] And according to modern day scholar Masha Salazkina, Maya wasn't impressed. [Masha Salazkina] She went to see this film and, as she was watching it, she was just wondering, you know, "What is this?" You know, like, "How can anyone watch it?" [Rico] But then, towards the end of the movie, Maya noticed something. [Masha Salazkina] A woman sitting next to her, who had bags full of groceries, was crying so hard and she had make-up all over her face, smudged. [Rico] Maya watched this woman weep through the credits. [Music concludes] [Projector stops, winds down] [Rico] And? [Masha Salazkina] And so this film critic asked her, "Well, why are you crying?" And she said, "Well, why aren't you crying? "I feel this movie is about me." [Laidback instrumental music] [Rico] Maya found this perplexing, because Yesenia wasn't a Russian movie. It wasn't even from an Eastern Bloc country. The movie this Soviet woman felt was about her had been made four years earlier in Mexico, where it had been a disappointing failure. Meanwhile, somehow in the USSR, it was on its way to becoming the biggest box office hit in Soviet history, and actually one of the biggest non-English language hits in the history of cinema. [Music continues] I am Rico Gagliano and from the curated streaming service MUBI, welcome back to the MUBI Podcast. MUBI is the best place to see beautiful hand-picked cinema from around the globe. On this show, we tell you the stories behind those films and any other movies with stories worth telling. This first season we're calling Lost in Translation. Every week we learn about a different international culture through the lens of a movie they loved. Specifically, a film that was a huge cultural phenomenon in just that one country. Which brings us to the strange tale of Yesenia. Almost no-one who's seen this movie will call it some grand work of art. It's obscure even for some experts on Latin American cinema. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] I own, I kid you not, 2,000 original DVDs of Mexican film, and I have never seen this one before. [Rico] That's Washington University's Ignacio Sanchez Prado. I sent him a DVD of the movie, so, don't worry, he's seen it now. And he is one of many people around the world I spoke with to learn more about a film that so many people saw, but so few seem to know much about. And to try to figure out how this, of all films, connected with tens of millions of Soviets. It's a tale of two very different countries and one movie. We're about to translate Yesenia. [Music continues] [Music concludes] [Rico] To understand this movie, first, you gotta understand its screenwriter, whose career is a story unto itself. Her name was Yolanda Vargas Dulch, [Emo de la Parra] She was really very attractive. I mean, not only physically but her personality was very strong and very interesting. Everybody wanted to speak with her and she had a strong leadership. [Rico] That's one of Yolanda's five children, Emo de la Parra. Emo grew up to be a famous actor and she thinks she knows why she chose that career. Her family, she says... [Emo de la Parra] We were... We were all so in fantasy. For me, that was a normal thing, to be in fantasy. School and all that, perhaps it was not the real thing. The real thing was imagination. And I suppose that is why I dedicate my life to acting and directing theater. [Rico] And it's easy to see why Yolanda Vargas Dulch would want to create a fantasy world for herself and her family, because when she was a kid, in the 1920s, real life was tough. [Lively instrumental music] [Emo de la Parra] When my mother was born, five years later, her parents divorced. And at the beginning of the '20s, being divorced was something very hard. Her mother started working. They were quite poor as well. And, at some point, my mother went to a singing career. [Women sing in Spanish] [Rico] Yeah, that's a teenage Yolanda you're listening to right now, singing with her sister. But, glamorous as it sounds, it didn't pay - she had to work a side gig at a pharmacy - and when she met the love of her life, Guillermo de la Parra, her career was actually a liability. [Emo de la Parra] My father came from a provisional family and they didn't want my father to marry her, because she was a singer and it was associated almost with prostitution and things like that. [Rico] Prostitution? What, really? [Emo de la Parra] Yes! But they said, "She's a singer, "how are you going to marry a singer? [Rico] Luckily, Yolanda's personality won them over. And, in any case, she didn't stay a singer for long, because one of the things she and Guillermo bonded over was another part time gig she'd taken on as a teenager and fallen in love with - writing stories. [Music continues, concludes] [Rico] Specifically, writing stories for comic books. Although comic isn't exactly the right word. [Emo de la Parra] Not really comic. Comic is a word that... Comic is more directed at children. This was love stories, love stories directed to grown-ups. [Rico] And in mid-century Mexico, grown-ups were reading these kind of graphic love stories...everywhere. [Emo de la Parra] In the markets, in the supermarket, in the buses, at school, in every house, in every house. Some of them were read hiding, because they were supposed not to be a very cultural literature. But in fact, everybody read it, even though some of them denied it. [Rico] Yolanda and Guillermo churned out graphic stories, like, non-stop. [Emo de la Parra] Since they met, all the dates they have, they dedicated part of the dates to write the stories in napkins in a restaurant. So... [Rico] This is before they were married? [Emo de la Parra] Before they were married, they began to work together. [Rico] When they were, like, on dates? [They laugh] [Emo de la Parra] On their dates, they started doing stories and writing them down in napkins. [Rico] Emo says, at first, her parents worked for competing publishing houses, until they decided to form their own, called Editorial Argumentos. At which point, Yolanda Vargas Dulch became comic royalty. [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] Well, she was known as the Reina del Folletn, the queen of comic melodrama. [Laidback instrumental music] [Rico] That's Roberto Carlos Ortiz. He's an independent scholar, specializing in Latin American culture, and he says Yolanda's work generally kept to a certain formula. [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] They were little, melodramatic stories. And so you had, like, usually a female protagonist who went through all the suffering and drama that you would expect in a film melodrama, but it was in comic book form. [Rico] And also, surprisingly often, that protagonist was from a minority race. For Yolanda, that just magnified a major theme of her work, something she'd experienced herself - a class system that tries to keep people apart. [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] Most of the Yolanda Vargas Dulch stories are structured around that, about conflict between classes, with the added element of race and ethnicity. She also had a storyline that was like a Madame Butterfly style story, another one that had to do with the times of slavery. [Rico] Of course, today, many would call that formula problematic. But, back then, people found her comics irresistible, [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] I know they were very popular. And not only were they popular in Mexico, they were also exported. For example, I'm Puerto Rican and I remember, when I was a kid, my grandmother used to read the series. [Emo de la Parra] At that moment, I'm talking about the '60s, '70s, there was a large audience. Every week, the sales were about one million. So, it reached a lot of people. [Rico] A lot a lot. At one point, Yolanda was the most read female writer in the country. And she was pumping out dozens of titles, [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] But she's best remembered for a series of comics called Lgrimas, Risas y Amor. These were stories that she had already told in the 1940s and '50s and she retold them in the '60s. And that's the version that most people remember. And that's where Yesenia comes from. [Music continues] [Rico] Oh, right, Yesenia. It's set in the Mexico of the 1860s and it's got all the hallmarks of a classic Yolanda Vargas Dulch story, including a crazy-complicated plot. [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] Right. So... Okay, let me try to simplify, because it's a rather long story. So, Yesenia tells the story of a young woman that is described in the story as being gitana, a gypsy, which is a term that is problematic nowadays, but that's the term that is used in the story. So, Yesenia falls in love with a man who is in the military, a captain, but, unfortunately, Yesenia thinks that the military man abandoned her. In the meantime, he thinks that she abandoned him. And so he returns to... Oh. See, it's a mess! [Rico] It really isn't easy, but allow me to give it a shot. [Spirited instrumental music] You probably got the basic idea. Like in the movie, which you're hearing right now, in the comic, Yesenia is a member of a proud tribe of itinerant Roma people. They make their living busking and dancing for tips, reading palms, that kind of thing. They're disdained by quote-unquote "respectable" society, but Yesenia doesn't really give a damn. She's a smart spitfire, happy to tell off the racist gents who always seem to be hitting on her. [Woman speaks Spanish] [Rico] One day, though, she meets that upstanding military captain, Osvaldo, who falls for her despite her low station, so much so he agrees to let her father marry them, according to the ways of her own people. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] Everything seems great, until... [Orchestral stab] ..the captain's suddenly ordered away on an emergency mission. He sends a message telling Yesenia he'll be back, but... it's intercepted, by bandits. [Man shouts, in Spanish] So, Yesenia thinks she's been abandoned. Meanwhile, Osvaldo's grandfather tells her their Roma marriage ceremony isn't even considered legal. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] "I would like to be wrong," he says, "You're a good girl." [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] "But there are laws that can't be changed." [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] And we could spend the rest of the episode on the twists that ensue, so let's just say, surprise, they end up together, after multiple almost-marriages, a revelation about Yesenia's own birth and at least one gratuitous brawl. [Clamour, woman speaks Spanish] [Rico] Yesenia was a hit, as a comic. And if you think it sounds like the making of a good soap opera, back in the '60s, there was someone else who felt the same way about Yolanda's stories, a Mexican TV star, named Silvia Derbez. [Emo de la Parra] I was about 10 years old and she arrived at the house. I don't know how she managed to know our address. But she wanted to speak with my mother because she wanted the stories to be done on TV and she wanted to be the star. And my mother said, "I'm sorry, I don't think it's going to work." "What are you talking about?" And she said, "Well, I think that it can work very well. Why don't we try?" [Reverberant instrumental music] [Rico] They tried and succeeded. First with a massive hit telenovela version of Yolanda's story Mara Isabel. [Emo de la Parra] Well, the first time that she saw Mara Isabel acted by this excellent actress, she began to cry, because it was like seeing her characters alive, moving, talking, dressed like the characters, and, well, she was very moved, very, very moved. [Rico] And describe what happens to her career at that moment, once Mara Isabel comes out. [Emo de la Parra] When Mara Isabel comes out, came another one and another one and another one until the day of her death. I mean, they do it and do it and do it again. [Rico] She's not exaggerating. Yolanda, the queen of comic book melodramas, also became the queen of telenovelas, the multi-platform Shonda Rhimes of her day. She adapted tons of her stories for TV. Over the decades, they've been remade multiple times. And one of the most popular? You guessed it. [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] Yesenia is one of the best known characters from the Lgrimas y Risas comic book, but then, in 1970, they made a telenovela adaptation, starring a sex symbol from the time that is named Fanny Cano. [Woman speaks Spanish] [Man speaks Spanish] [Woman speaks Spanish] [Roberto Carlos Ortiz] And that made the story even more popular, because she became very popular as Yesenia. Her hairstyle became famous, her make-up style became famous. The telenovela adaptation, that's when it really became a big hit, which, in turn, leads to the movie. [Rico] Of course, a movie adaptation. Why not? Everything Yolanda touched seemed to turn to gold. [Music continues] [Rico] But we already know, somehow, somewhere, between the little and the big screen, Yesenia lost its Mojo. And, when I first researched the movie, I thought its downfall might have begun with the choice of director. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] This is a scene from the 1966 film Santo vs. The Martian Invasion. In it, a group of Martians, who look like half-naked Fabios, warn humanity, via television, that Earth will be annihilated. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] And the only guy who can stop them, the masked Mexican wrestling hero, Santo. [Man exclaims in Spanish, blows land] [Rico] it's a pretty wonderful pulp flick and about the farthest thing imaginable from a period romance. Yet, the same guy who directed it, Alfredo B Crevenna, who did a bunch of these wrestling movies, by the way, also directed Yesenia. [Electronic warbling] [Rico] Believe it or not, though, I'm told he wasn't a bad choice. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] Alfredo Crevenna, the director, was actually born in Germany. [Rico] That's humanities professor Ignacio Sanchez Prado again, the guy I sent the DVD to? He may be new to Yesenia, but he's well versed in Crevenna, who he respects as a serious workhorse. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] He left Germany because of the rise of Nazism. He lands in the Warner Brothers in California for a couple of years and then he comes to Mexico and he starts making work in Mexican cinema. And this guy, you know, he makes 150 or something movies throughout his career and he has all kinds of really interesting movies. So, he writes movies for Cantinflas, he did, wrote a version of Santa, which is a very important literary adaptation. [Rico] And, especially in the latter half of his 40-plus-year career, Crevenna was known as a solid director of melodramas. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] He really embodies himself the historical range of popular Mexican cinema between the '40s and the '90s, in a way that you would be very hard pressed to find another director doing this. [Rico] Wow. He's like a polymath basically, generically, anyway. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] Yeah, and you know, he does things, you know, some of the films are sexploitation films, others are horror films. He has everything. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] In fact, Ignacio gives Yesenia pretty high marks for a movie that, after all, was never aiming for art status. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] It's an excellent melodrama, I think. It has very good art direction and the kind of acting is like top level telenovela acting, so it's the kind of acting you will see a lot in Mexican television. [Rico] Which makes sense, because a lot of the actors came from television. In fact, Jorge Lavat, who played Yesenia's heart-throb captain in the telenovela, reprised his role for the film. [Man speaks Spanish] [Rico] But he did it without his TV co-star, Fanny Cano, who got sick at the last minute and was replaced as Yesenia by one Jacqueline Andere. Which made me think maybe that doomed the movie, Andere taking the place of the sex symbol who'd created the character? Ignacio says, "Not so fast." [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] So, she's a very big actress, in television in particular. She has been in some of the most iconic telenovelas of history, right? So, she will be a front and center person, just like Jorge Lavat, the male protagonist, is also fairly well known. [Rico] In fact, Jacqueline Andere has film credits Fanny Cano probably envied, like this one. [Woman speaks Spanish] That's her in the 1962 classic, The Exterminating Angel, directed by none other than Luis Buuel. The New York Times once ranked it one of the 1,000 greatest movies ever made. [Woman speaks Spanish] [Rico] So, what did finally tank Yesenia in its home country? Ignacio says maybe it wasn't the movie so much as the Mexican film industry itself. [Laidback instrumental music] [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] To be quite honest, this is not the time in which a film will be as impactful. [Rico] Yesenia hits theaters in 1971, a moment when Mexican cinema went from a private studio system to a state-run one, focused more on supporting auteur film-makers than the country's commercial industry. The whole Mexican film business changed. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] So, the result is that in '71 to '76, it becomes very respected in art film festivals and it creates a new generation of film-makers that, you know, became the leading figures in auteurial cinema at the time. At the same time, it really does give a lot of control to the state. They give a lot of the resources to foreign productions, Mexican productions start struggling more. [Rico] They were struggling especially against a wave of competition from Hollywood films, which were making a comeback after World War II when they weren't as widely distributed in Mexico. So... [Emo de la Parra] Mexican films were not doing as well as they were one or two decades before. And Mexican films were competing with American films that began to be very powerful. So, a lot of people saw the movie, but not as much as they saw the soap opera, and it was a kind of disappointment for my parents. [Rico] But someplace that wasn't awash in Hollywood movies, where World Cinema surprisingly had a way more even playing field? The Soviet Union. Just one of many reasons, five years later, Yesenia would get a second life behind the Iron Curtain. That story coming up in just a minute. Stay with us. [Laidback instrumental music] [Music concludes, resonates] MUBI is a curated streaming service, production company and film distributor, a place to discover, discuss and celebrate beautiful cinema. Every day, MUBI premieres a new film, each one thoughtfully hand-picked by our team of curators from brand-new work by emerging film-makers to masterpieces by cinema's greatest icons, there is always something new to uncover on the platform. Throughout this first season of the podcast, our online film magazine Notebook is publishing a complementary piece alongside every episode, in a series called MUBI Podcast Expanded. This week, film professor and historian Masha Salazkina adds to her commentary, that you're going to hear later in this episode, discussing her love for international films growing up in the Soviet Union in the late '70s and early '80s. It's very cool. Also, if this episode has sparked your interest in Mexican cinema, MUBI has just launched a brand-new Spanish language podcast, showcasing in-depth conversations between the leading figures in the Latin American film world. Produced in partnership with La Corriente del Golfo, the first episode of MUBI Podcast Encuentros features Gael Garca Bernal and Carolina Sann discussing the relationship between film acting and life itself. So, finish this episode, then check out Masha Salazkina's article on the Notebook, at MUBI.com/notebook. And, if you speak Spanish, listen and subscribe to MUBI Podcast Encuentros wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, to stream the best of cinema, simply head over to MUBI.com to start watching. [Laidback instrumental music] So, it was 1975, four years after Yesenia's release and Yolanda Vargas Dulch wasn't thinking much about the movie any more. Even when she started getting word that it seemed to be doing pretty well... in the Soviet Union. [Emo de la Parra] I mean, she knew it. She, of course, was informed about it. But she needed to live it in order to believe it. [Rico] And Yolanda didn't really live it till later that decade, when she and Emo took a trip. [Emo de la Parra] She went to the Soviet Union. I went with her, just a tourist trip. It was 70-something. And she realized at that moment that the movie was so well known, because, as soon as someone said, "She's the author of Yesenia," it was a crowd, she couldn't move. The crowd came and asked for autographs. She said, "Why? Why do they like that much Yesenia?" [Rico] Good question, which we'll try to answer in a minute. But, first, I have another one. How'd they even see Yesenia? I'm an American Gen X-er, I grew up during the last stages of the Cold War, so I pictured the USSR as this walled-off place, purposely keeping out world culture so the government could make its own communist world. But, like a lot of things I thought I knew back then, not so. [Ian Christie] Oh, foreign films were a regular part of the diet. I mean, hundreds of them were shown. [Rico] That's film historian Ian Christie. He's an expert on Soviet cinema and he spent a lot of time there back in the day. He says the Soviet movie agency Goskino wasn't at all averse to importing films from foreign lands, especially certain foreign lands. [Ian Christie] They did have their preferences. I mean, France, of course, had a very close relationship with the Soviet Union, partly because there was a massive French Communist Party, and there were many, many links, cultural links at all levels, between France and the Soviet Union. And Italy too. Italian films were widely seen in the Soviet Union, especially by film-makers. If you really want to understand what's happening with people like Tarkovsky and many of his generation, you have to keep remembering that they had seen films by Fellini and by Buuel. [Rico] And, speaking of Buuel, yes... [Ian Christie] Mexico was considered to be an okay place because it had a revolution. [Bell tolls] [Rico] In fact, Latin American cinema in general was a Soviet favorite. [Masha Salazkina] The USSR, in the '50s and especially '60s, had very longstanding relationships with the Mexican and Argentinian film industries. [Rico] You met Masha Salazkina at the beginning of this episode. She's a film studies professor at Concordia University in Montreal. [Masha Salazkina] The Mexican and Argentinian films were shown in the Soviet Union to great success. Argentinian cinema is a little bit less kind of internationally recognized, but, in that period, there were a lot of especially musical films coming out of Argentina, and they were also immensely popular. [Woman sings in Spanish] [Rico] Especially films starring one Lolita Torres, who sang and danced her way through a series of glittering musicals from the '50s that were shown in the USSR well into the '60s. This is a turn from a flick called The Beautiful Lie. [Singing continues] [Masha Salazkina] And I don't remember, it was sometime in the '60s, maybe '66, that Lolita Torres came to the Soviet Union and, again, you know, found millions and millions of admiring fans. [Rico] Go ahead and search for Lolita Torres clips on YouTube. Even today, half the comments are in Russian. [Music continues] [Rico] So, why was Latin American cinema so particularly embraced? Masha actually chalks it up as much to the page as the screen. [Masha Salazkina] In the late '60s and early '70s, Latin American literature became extremely popular in the Soviet Union. And it was a very literary culture. Everyone read. So you know, when Gabriel Garca Mrquez or some of the earlier Latin American authors became very popular, they were read by everyone. [Rico] So, you think that might have had some impact? People were familiar with Latin American literature, so it's like, "Oh, now I'm seeing it brought to life." [Masha Salazkina] Yeah, yeah. And it was also, in the Soviet Union, and at that time, it wasn't quite, again, as differentiated, where you would think, well, highbrow literature versus lowbrow entertainment. It really wasn't as clearly marked. [Rico] But if Soviets had been fans of Latin American books and movies for years, if millions already flocked to Lolita tourists flicks in the '60s, what made millions more flock specifically to Yesenia in '75? One reason? Good timing, in the sense that the '70s in the USSR were a bad time. [Leonid Brezhnev speaks Russian] [Rico] This is Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in a televised address on New Year's Eve 1970. At one point, he says the country is greeting the new year in, quote, "good humor." [Brezhnev speaks Russian] [Rico] Ian Christie says that wasn't true. [Ian Christie] There'd been a lot of liberalisation in the early '60s, under Khrushchev, but things had gone too far for some of the party bosses and the old guard and there was a real crackdown at the end of the '60s. So, as we enter the '70s, things are quite sort of buttoned down in the Soviet Union. Old Brezhnev, who's taken over, is... Well, it's often known nowadays as the Era of Stagnation and, indeed, things were stagnating, [Rico] While the rest of the world was grooving on the hypercoloured late '60s and early '70s, Ian says a lot of Soviets were painfully aware their lives were comparatively gray. [Ian Christie] Which, of course, means that, you know, movies, the biggest form of recreation in the Soviet Union, really, were very much in demand. I mean, there were enormous audiences flocking to the cinemas in every single part of the Soviet Union and foreign movies, in particular, were absolutely in demand, because they were the only things that gave you a sense of the outside world. [Rico] In fact, at one point during Brezhnev's regime, Soviets were going to the movies more often than people anywhere else in the world. And half the movies screened in the country were foreign, the less gray, the better. [Man] There he is. Come, sing and conquer. [Disco music] [Ian Christie] By far, the biggest source of foreign films, right throughout Soviet era, was Indian cinema. The single most popular Indian film in the Soviet era, as far as I know, is a film that I bet you've never heard of, let alone seen. It's called Disco Dancer. [Rico] Is it about a disco dancer? [Ian Christie] Yeah, yeah, exactly. [Rico] That would do it. [Disco music] [Ian Christie] My theory about that is they probably hadn't seen Saturday Night Fever and I suspect that there was a huge audience in the Soviet Union that knew about disco, but they hadn't seen the kind of films that we had ready access to. [Rico] So, colorful Bollywood disco musicals, or, say, sweeping historical romances set in Mexico. In the Era of Stagnation, a lot of Soviets were hungry for these kinds of flicks. [Music continues] [Rico] And Yesenia also had something else going for it. The USSR didn't really care about importing hits. They were all about the bottom line. [Masha Salazkina] So, the Soviet Union was interested in buying films as cheaply as possible. They were looking for films they knew would be popular with the audiences so they could make money, films that would not be too expensive. Hence, often older films and often not the most...popular films, necessarily, right, in the country of origin. [Rico] Yesenia was a four-year-old flop. So the price tag was...minimal. [Masha Salazkina] Films for import were bought without royalties, meaning that they would pay a flat sum. So, for example, Yesenia was bought for 20,000 US dollars. [Rico] And that's it? [Masha Salazkina] And that's it, and they had an agreement for a seven-year run. But it did not specify how many times, you know, how many locations. Very often, also, even the seven-year period was not respected. Basically, they would show every foreign film until the actual print would completely be torn to shreds. [Rico] In other words, there was nothing keeping the government from showing Yesenia a lot. And they definitely got their money's worth. [Masha Salazkina] So, you can imagine if they paid $20,000 for this film, and in the first year alone, right, they sold 91 million tickets. [Rico] Wow. A lot of rubles. [Masha Salazkina] Yeah. And that's just, again, and that was just the first year. It was also the kind of film - and that I do remember from my own childhood - that people would go see when they're on vacation. Because the movie theaters were everywhere, including, like, small film clubs that could be in any small village, right? So, when you'd go on vacations, whether it's to the seaside or in the mountains, they would always have a movie theater there. [Rico] It's funny, you think of beach reading, so this was beach viewing? [Masha Salazkina] Yes, it was absolutely beach viewing. [Rico] Actually, Masha says the film made most of its cash in rural areas, far from big cities like Moscow, where the Soviet cinema elite were not exactly champions of this movie. [Masha Salazkina] And I know that from reading the letters of the viewers, because the film, when it became such a huge box office success, actually provoked a fury of critics kind of the lamentations of the critics on the demise of Soviet movie-going tastes. And, in return, people would write letters, accusing the critics of being snobs, of not understanding the richness and the emotional life of the audiences. [Rico] So, the critics are kind of saying, "This is, we can do better than this. "For God's sake, Tarkovsky is putting out movies right now "and yet everybody's going to see this lowbrow movie from Mexico." [Masha Salazkina] Yeah. No, it became really kind of a poster child for, again, sort of, "All that Soviet audiences want to see "are tasteless melodramas and genre films. "What happened to the great traditions of Soviet cinema? "Why don't people want to see this?" [Rico] But Ian Christie says, against films like Yesenia, great Soviet cinema didn't really have a chance. [Music stops] [Ian Christie] Because overall, there was a enormous appetite for romance. I mean, the one thing that Soviet cinema was not delivering was a sort of sense of romance. There were lots of inspirational stuff dealing with social issues, in very engaging ways, but they were not delivering that sort of sense of romance. People didn't, you know, get swept away by a gypsy lover or anything like that. That did not happen. [Rico] Why not? [Ian Christie] Well, there's a kind of hangover from the Stalin period. Most of the films were still a bit didactic, or they were harping on about the war, the Great Patriotic War. And you can see, at the beginning of the '80s, there's a realization in Goskino that they've got to deliver a more popular kind of film. [Rico] The kind of film, in fact, that Yolanda Vargas Dulch might have been proud of. [Man speaks Russian] [Woman speaks Russian] [Rico] In 1980, just as Yesenia was ending its several-year run in Soviet cinemas, director Vladimir Menshov released the landmark Soviet movie Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. The central character is Katerina, who, after a lifetime of romantic disasters, ends up single but successful, a factory executive. Then, on a train, she meets a worker named Gosha. [Man speaks Russian] [Rico] There's an instant spark, but Gosha doesn't think relationships work when a woman earns more than her husband, so she lies to him about her job. When he finds out, she almost loses him, but, at the end, his love for her is too strong to ignore. She looks at him with tears in her eyes. [Woman speaks Russian] "I've been waiting for you for so long," she says. [Woman speaks Russian] [Ian Christie] Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears was an almighty breakthrough. I remember being shown it in Moscow, at a viewing at Goskino, and I couldn't believe my eyes. You know, it really did seem to be, well, just extraordinary. I remember saying to my interpreter, "We've never seen anything like this before." [Rico] Why? What about it was so amazing to you? [Ian Christie] Well, I suppose, the focus really is on people achieving happiness through relationships. It's a focus on personal life and it was seen as a signal that you could actually focus the entire film on people's relationships. [Rico] Instead of what? [Ian Christie] Well, instead of their social duty. [Rico] And Ian won't say Soviet films like this became possible only because of the success of Yesenia, but he says it sure helped point the way. [Man and woman sing in Russian] [Rico] Once again, critics generally weren't fans of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. Once again, it was a hit anyway. In the US, it actually won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And here's my favorite part. Guess where it also landed. [Ignacio Sanchez Prado] Growing up in Mexico City like I did, You would see for example, the film Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, which is a famous Soviet melodrama, which played on television all the time. It was on television maybe once a month. [Rico] Yeah, Ignacio came across it all the time in Mexico. Among its fans, his own single mother. What could she have possibly seen in it, this movie set in an utterly different country, on the other side of the planet? Maybe the same thing that Soviet woman wept over in Yesenia, a society that tries to keep people apart and women who hope for the best anyway, and persevere. I think she saw a movie about herself. [Laidback instrumental music] [Rico] And that's the MUBI Podcast for this week. Follow us to hear more deep dives into movies that were singular hits in a single place. Next week, we learn about the 1997 film that changed the way China celebrates the holidays. [Michael Berry] There's a couple of rituals that are associated with the Chinese New Year. But, starting after 1997, a new ritual emerged, which was the whole family goes to the theater and watches the new Feng Xiaogang film. This episode was hosted, written and cut by me, Rico Gagliano. Jackson Musker is our booking producer. Our engineer was Andy Carson. Mastering by Steven Coln. Martin Austwick composed and performed all the music. The show's executive produced by me, along with Jon Barrenechea, Efe Cakarel, Daniel Kasman and Michael Tacca for MUBI. If you're digging the show, please leave us a five-star review wherever you listen. It will make it easier for others to find us. And if you want to send us your thoughts, well wishes or just to chew me out for butchering the pronunciation of your language - I do my best, but I'm sure it's happened - our e-mail is podcast@MUBI.com. And, for an ever-changing collection of carefully hand-picked films from iconic directors to emerging auteurs, subscribe to MUBI and MUBI.com. Till next week, it's a big world, watch globally. [Music continues] [Music concludes, resonates]