Some of my friends here in Baltimore have put together a little Monday night movie club, and we've watched some interesting stuff. (My picks so far have been The Lady Eve and Spirited Away.) This week's pick was a 1988 Russian film called Heart of a Dog. It was adapted from an old book of the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov; this book was an important piece of samizdat (underground literature) under the Soviet regime.
The movie is set in mid-1920s Moscow, as Russian society is adjusting to the communist regime. A hungry stray dog is taken in by a famous doctor, only to become the subject of the doctor's experimental cross-species pituitary-implant surgery. The experiment's unexpected result: the dog slowly turns into a human being, and a wretched, brutish one at that. As the dog-man falls in with the local Soviets, he makes life more and more unbearable for his wealthy caretakers. There's quite a bit of barbed humor: when the doctor asks his research subject to demonstrate his skills on the balalaika for a crowd of scientists, the dog-man's song and dance decays into feverish proletarian doggerel (so to speak). When the dog-man needs a job, he becomes the city's official stray cat catcher/killer, and takes an unseemly joy in his work. All in all, it's a biting satire on Soviet attempts to elevate human nature.
Now, this was clearly a product of the perestroika era: at no point before Gorbachev could a director have gotten away with portraying the Soviet functionaries as officious morons. But it was interesting that it took me a few minutes to understand that the wealthy doctor's decadence was also meant to be off-putting, even immoral. My eyes, apparently, are used to a Hollywood glamorization of wealth (not our only approach to wealth, but nevertheless a common one). But if you pay attention, it appears that most of the doctor's surgeries involve transplanting animal organs into rich people to "rejuvenate" their libidos. In that light, the doctor's insistence that he deserves his well-decorated seven-room flat rings as hollow as the dog-man's later claim, on the grounds of a certificate he somehow managed to acquire from a bureaucrat, to his own "thirty-seven square feet" of the place.