Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Russian Cinema and a Paella Made With Love

I've been so busy this past month that I barely realized Christmas sneaking up, as it does.  However, I'm staving off the Christmas spirit as much as I can, and so will write a bit about my doings out and about Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, with hopefully a Christmas post to come in January. 

First of all, in a crusade to acquaint me with traditional Spanish cookery, my roommate's friend Alberto came over to cook us a giant paella and ply us with delicious sangria.  Determined to capture every step of the process, I hovered around the kitchen snapping photos the entire time, which probably was not conducive to cooking.  However, as Alberto explained it, the secret to cooking a true Spanish paella is to cook it with lots and lots of love.  Which is not to say you have to kiss it or buy it presents or anything... it's more of a mindset.

Anyway, as I followed it, here is how to make paella:

1) Cook your meat, which in this case was rabbit and chicken, in a decent amount of olive oil.  On another burner, simmer something which I believe is broth with some saffron thrown in.

2) Remove the meat and drain, and in the leftover juices sautee onions and peppers in a shape that looks very much like a Christmas wreath.  

3) Throw in some other things: chopped leeks, mainly, and three whole cloves of garlic.

4) After this it got complicated, but I believe what you do is pour the broth into the sauteed vegetables, then add three or more handfuls of rice.  And the most important part, as Alberto impressed on me (possibly not THE most important, but it's the one that stuck with me), is that you never stir the paella; you dance with it.  So there he was, spinning the paella back and forth on the stovetop as it simmered away, and lo and behold by the end of it all he had a real masterpiece on his hands.  Needless to say, it was delicious.

Also, I've discovered a Russian cultural center on Calle Atocha that hosts a free cinema club every Tuesday, as well as occasional exhibitions of hand-painted Matryoshka dolls and lacquer-ware depicting old Russian fairy tales and knitted lace shawls that are so fine the curator demonstrated that she could draw the whole shawl through her wedding ring.  (Also there was free champagne, which I am always a fan of.)  

And I know it's not a very Spanish-themed post for a blog set in Madrid, but I had so much fun watching the following three films that I've decided to try my hand at film reviewing:

1. Moskva Slezam Ne Verit (Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears)  This was the most wonderfully Soviet movie you could ever hope to see, from the very name to the climactic scene where a man in a wifebeater knocks back an entire tumblerful of vodka and then sniffs a crust of bread as a chaser while another man smacks a fish against a table interspersed with a shot of three women sitting in a room sobbing hysterically, to the closing vignette of the fish-smacking man eating a bowl of borscht and scowling.  But histrionics aside, it is really a very touching movie - a love story towards the end, but primarily a story of the friendship between three women as they grow up in Soviet Moscow, struggling through their careers, first loves, disillusions, and so on.  And while some of the opinions expressed on gender roles are a bit overly... chivalrous, shall we euphemistically say, overall it is a story that focuses on tough, resourceful, complex women.  It's fairly long at two and a half hours, but it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980 and is well worth the time.  Also, according to IMDB, Ronald Reagan watched it multiple times in preparation for meeting Gorbachev, as a way to better acquaint himself with "the Russian soul."  FOUR STARS!

Also, for anyone interested in watching, it is here on YouTube with English subtitles. 

2. Morozko  Not exactly high cinema, but worth watching just to appreciate its sheer weirdness.  First of all, it's a fairy tale, but unlike western fairy tale adaptations, it doesn't follow a single story arc of handsome man insults mushroom fairy, gets turned into a bear, repents and is returned to his handsome self.  No, Morozko is an ambitious seven or eight fairy tales mushed together: handsome man turns into bear, terrorizes village, beautiful girl gets left in the woods to die under her wicked stepmother's orders, handsome man meets Baba Yaga, beautiful girl meets Santa Claus, accidentally gets frozen by his magic staff, is saved and married by the handsome man... and THEN THEY GET ATTACKED BY SINGING BANDITS!  Delightfully camp and surreal, and a good way to familiarize yourself with Russian fairy tale archetypes.

THREE STARS with the extra star owing to a very clever Chekhov's gun thrown in at the beginning, plus the mushroom fairy's line, "Yes, Ivan, a bear will ask my pardon.  But yours will be the back that bends."

3. Snezhnaya Koroleva  Given that Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen is my very favorite fairy tale of all time, I have watched nearly every film adaptation there is and found them all to be ridiculous.  Except for this 1957 animated version, which is a marvel of classic Soviet animation and wondrously faithful to the original story and just magical and scary and heartwarming in every way.  Again, it has the appeal of being filled with dynamic and courageous female characters, and I do fiercely love any story about a girl journeying out into the world to save her jerk friend.  Plus, the little robber girl  is literally one of the greatest characters ever conceived.  That scene where she frees all the animals in her menagerie... it gets me every time.  I cannot talk enough about how much I love this movie, and I think I'm going watch it right now.  

And so should you!  FIVE STARS!