The Scarecrow

English Title: The Scarecrow

Original Title: Chuchelo

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Rolan Bykov

Screenplay: Rolan Bykov, Vladimir Zheleznikov

Cinematographer: Anatolii Mukasei

Art Director: Evgenii Markovich

Runtime: 127 minutes

Genre: Children's/Social Problem Film

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Rolan Bykov, Mitia Egorov, Iurii Nikulin, Kristina Orbakaite, Elena Sanaeva

Year: 1983

Volume: Russian

Lena Bessol’tseva comes to a new school in a provincial town, where she moves in with her grandfather, an art collector. On the first day of school she gets the nickname ‘Scarecrow’ for being a little awkward and smiling too much. The true troubles start when a class trip to Moscow is cancelled because of their skipping a class and going to the movies instead. Lena’s new friend, Dima Somov, accidentally runs into Margarita Ivanovna, their teacher, and tells her where everyone is. The film then revolves around the issue of betrayal: Dima denounced his classmates to the teacher, thus everyone is punished. Lena then tells her classmates that she did it and becomes an outcast, hated by everyone. She, however, believes that Dima will eventually tell the truth, but every time he has a chance, he fails to do so. The classmates’ hatred eventually forces Lena out of town. Her grandfather goes away with her, bestowing his art collection on the town. He also gives a portrait that looks just like Lena to the school. Dima finally tells the truth, but it is too late: Bessol’tseva is gone.

‘I am not afraid of anyone’, says the main heroine, Lena Bessol’tseva. This sentence in a way reflects one the most important ideas in the film. The Scarecrow, based on Vladimir Zheleznikov’s novella, tells a story of fear and bravery, honour and betrayal, true friendship and first love. The story, however, is complicated by the fact that it is twelve year olds who have to deal with all these issues. For them, there are no grey areas – one is either best friend or enemy, coward or hero, loved or hated. Just like many Western films, and unlike Soviet ‘school’ films, The Scarecrow focuses on the children’s cruelty. The fire scene seems to be the epiphany of ruthlessness: the pupils burn a scarecrow dressed in Lena’s clothes and make her watch it. Lena pulls down her effigy, saves her dress and thus metaphorically saves herself, taking control of the situation. This symbolical burning gives her new power. She forgives Dima ‘because she was on fire’, but she does not care any more, because she is not longer afraid to be judged.

As often happens, children’s cruelty is influenced by the relationships with their parents. Marina, one of the classmates, is upset about not going to Moscow because she misses her father who lives there and because she cannot stand her mother. The ‘steel button’ Mironova, who never cries, always follows the rules and cannot forgive traitors, at the end of the film cries out that everyone around her is ‘just like’ her mother, who wants everything done hush-hush. Thus, Bykov seems to suggest that a lot of the children’s problems stem from the parents, or from a lack of a relationship with them. The adults never interfere with the children’s troubles, which, as it appears, poses a problem in itself. Adults never really show any interest in the children’s affairs and are often presented as bystanders. This is repeatedly emphasized visually, when the audience’s attention is drawn to the adults on the screen rather than the children in the background. Raised by single mothers, alcoholic fathers and grandparents, the children are forced to create their own (cruel) rules in order to make sense of their world, to distinguish between true friends and enemies. Thus, the problem of alienation and hatred as raised in the film is social as much as psychological.  

The Scarecrow gives two different parts of the story. The first one is presented through flashbacks as Lena tells her grandfather about the cancelled trip to Moscow and everything that leads up to it. The second part deals mostly with the present which, however, does not bring a true resolution. On the contrary, the film ends on a rather pessimistic note: Lena leaves the town with her grandfather, who abandons all his beloved paintings. Her classmates feel incredibly guilty and remorseful as they realize that she is a most honourable person. Nevertheless, they are not brave enough to apologize directly to Lena and can do so only when she is gone, writing ‘Forgive us, Scarecrow’ on the board above the lookalike portrait. Lena, on the other hand, has come to say goodbye and forgive Dima. Her grandfather, who listened to her and tried to support her, played a key role for her confidence. Perhaps this could be read as Bykov’s commentary on society in general, where children feel unloved, ignored and misunderstood and where physical and emotional tortures go unnoticed.

Author of this review: Mariya Boston