This Russian film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s story was for a long time the only horror film made in the Soviet Union. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlev), a young novice, travels across the countryside and stays for a night in a barn that belongs to an ugly old woman. When she attacks him at night and takes him for a broom ride, the scared novice fatally wounds her, and before she dies, she turns into a beautiful young noblewoman (Natalya Varley). The latter leaves a will, according to which Khoma should pray for her for three nights in the chapel until her body is buried. At night, the witch rises from the coffin and tries to catch Khoma. She flies around but she can’t reach him or see him because he stays inside the circle that he has drawn around himself. During the third and last night, the witch makes the last attempt to scare him out of the circle, and she calls all sorts of ugly creatures to help her… Gogol wrote several stories based on Ukrainian folklore, many of them dealing with the Devil and the supernatural. ~ Yuri German, All Movie Guide Continue reading
Like Tolstoy’s novel, this epic-length War and Peace is rough going, but worth the effort. Winner of the 1969 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and widely considered the most faithful adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic, Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive Soviet-Italian coproduction was seven years in the making, at a record-setting cost of $100 million.
Bondarchuk himself plays the central role of Pierre Bezukhov, buffeted by fate during Russia’s tumultuous Napoleonic Wars, serving as pawn and philosopher through some of the most astonishing set pieces ever filmed.
Bondarchuk is a problematic director: interior monologues provide awkward counterpoint to intimate dramas, weaving together the many classes and characters whose lives are permanently affected by war.
Infusions of ’60s-styled imagery clash with the film’s period detail; it’s an anomalous experiment that doesn’t really work. Undeniably, however, the epic battle scenes remain breathtakingly unique; to experience the sheer scale of this film is to realize that such cinematic extravagance will never be seen again. Continue reading
Banned by the Soviet authorities, Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala (The Eve of Ivan Kupalo) is widely held to be one of the masterpieces of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema. Adapted from a short story of Gogol, which had its roots in Ukrainian folklore, the film depicts an almost Faustian pact, in which Piotr makes an unholy deal with Bassaruv in order that he may win the hand of Pidorka from her father. The director Yuri Ilyenko brings the same rich, vivid imagery that he lent to Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors where he worked as the cinematographer. The film often makes difficult first viewing for unaccustomed viewers due to its hallucinatory nature, but its lucid tapestry renders it a mandatory experience. Continue reading
Widely recognized as a masterpiece, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 205-minute medieval epic, based on the life of the Russian monk and icon painter, was not seen as the director intended it until its re-release over twenty years after its completion. The film was not screened publicly in its own country (and then only in an abridged form) until 1972, three years after winning the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Calling the film frightening, obscure, and unhistorical, Soviet authorities edited the picture on several occasions, removing as much as an entire hour from the original.
Presented as a tableaux of seven sections in black and white, with a final montage of Rublev’s painted icons in color, the film takes an unflinching gaze at medieval Russia during the first quarter of the 15th century, a period of Mongol-Tartar invasion and growing Christian influence. Commissioned to paint the interior of the Vladimir cathedral, Andrei Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn) leaves the Andronnikov monastery with an entourage of monks and assistants, witnessing in his travels the degradations befalling his fellow Russians, including pillage, oppression from tyrants and Mongols, torture, rape, and plague. Faced with the brutalities of the world outside the religious enclave, Rublev’s faith is shaken, prompting him to question the uses or even possibility of art in a degraded world. After Mongols sack the city of Vladimir, burning the very cathedral that he has been commissioned to paint, Rublev takes a vow of silence and withdraws completely, removing himself to the hermetic confines of the monastery.
To the Stars by Hard Ways was first released in 1985, and the print being screened at Fantasia is the newly restored version that was shorn of 20 minutes and re-edited by the director’s son Nikolai Viktorov in 2001. Once given the Mystery Science Theatre treatment in a truncated version known as Humanoid Woman, To the Stars by Hard Ways has gained a cult-classic status among Russian youths who were attuned to the film’s blend of pop social commentary and stunning visual alchemy. The latter is a result of a varied cinematic style which incorporates poetic touches of Tarkovskian influenced naturalism (“earthy, organic” set design), shifting colour patterns (between sepia, monochromatic blue and saturated nature imagery), and simple yet inventive in-camera special effects (slow motion, reverse, dissolves, mirror shots etc.). To the Stars by Hard Ways functions marvelously well on multiple levels — as a trippy science-fiction social critique of environmental neglect, as a campy treat of mod visuals and Star Trek-influenced human and alien characters, and as a retro Communist propaganda piece. Even with these at times radical shifts in tone, the film remains a genuinely moving existential space opera.
The film was shot in 1942 in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately the image and sound quality is not so good.
One of the few pre-Revolution Russian feature films to survive, Father Sergius is an elaborate picturization of a Tolstoy novel. Ivan Mozzhukin plays a young, libertine officer who thinks nothing of committing casual sins while in the service of the Czar. He comes to regret his misdeeds as he grows older, his past debaucheries manifesting themselves in his wizened face and desiccated body. He wanders up and down the countryside, searching for redemption. Director Feodor Protazanov emphasized the high and low points of Mozhukin’s life by filming in the actual palaces and private clubs described by Tolstoy in his novel. The overall theme of corruption in high places automatically resulted in Father Sergius being banned by the Czarist censors, though the film found a more receptive audience once the government passed into the hands of the revolutionaries. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide