Watch like Doc: “Viking” (Викинг)

Related imageThe 2016 Russian production “Viking” was screened today here in Pittsburgh at the Russian Film Symposium.  Much like yesterday’s “Battle for Sevastopol,” it sticks out a bit like a sore thumb, a Russified version of a Hollywood blockbuster among more traditional art-house films.  I’m still not quite certain how it made the grade, so to speak – a two year old movie with a monstrous budget (by Russian film standards) wandering around a field of much newer, much more independent films.

The movie was introduced to the audience as “an absolute mess of a film.”  This was arguably not the most fair description of the film, but considering the speaker’s primary angst revolved around the film’s lack of historical accuracy, the pompous attitude might be understandable.  The attitude was further underscored when the speaker, in all seriousness, stated that the movie’s toying with history was a dangerous move, considering the fact that “literally everyone knows the story of Vladimir the Great and his conversion to Christianity in 988 AD.”  I would suggest that a reconsideration of how we define the words “literally” and “everyone” if this is to be taken seriously.  Let’s have a quick virtual show of hands of all those readers who are familiar with that chunk of Russian history.

Image result for vladimir the greatSo that is what we are presented with.  Vladimir, who would become Vladimir the Great, was one of three sons of Prince Svyatoslav who scattered to relatively remote corners of Kievan Rus for their own rule.  Boys will be boys, and when Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk  murdered his other brother Oleg, Vladimir got the hell out of Dodge…well, out of Rus.  Chilling in Sweden, Vladimir seeks to avenge Oleg (or at least look less like a milquetoast for running away) by amassing a horde of rough fellas to take back Novgorod after doing about two cinematic hours’ worth of pillaging, killing, and raping.  Along the way, hostages are taken, Roman words are misunderstood, and a siege on Helm’s Deep is thwarted.  The movie concentrates on the murdery and rapey bits, along with relationships being explored between – possibly – the same five guys throughout the film.  I only say this because, with all the mud and muck and blood and hair covering the actors, they all start to look pretty much the same.

You look like you need photographic proof.  You’ll have to take my word for it.

The saga ends with a thread of religion crawling through the film finally catching up to Vladimir; after a number of questionable signs from above, he succumbs to the belief that Orthodox Christianity is for him.  The rest is history.

The movie is not really bad; it is a decent effort to translate a saga from Russia’s earliest history onto the big screen that would actually be watched (instead of, say, a documentary relying on illustrations of princes being dunked in a baptismal font).  Because it features a good deal of mud, blood, muck, and hair, the actors recognize there is no real need to articulate their words.  There seems to be an unwritten rule that suggests fighters running into a fight scene must roar an incoherent string of vowels like a constipated ox seeking fecal relief.  At one point, I was hoping for at least one of the actors barking out “For Gondor!” because this whole film really carries a Lord of the Rings sort of feel.  In fact, at times, you would swear there are shot-for-shot replications of fight scenes from that series of films.  If George Harrison had filmed this, he would be sued by the Shirelles.  Instead, it’s enough to say it’s merely a nod to a superior director.

Image result for gandalf fightingThat might have been uncalled for.

I could excuse the grunting and bellowing of the fighters (who has time for comic book dialogue when you’re lopping off the legs of an opponent’s horse?), but when we see Vladimir’s efforts to shove a ship down a mountain (honestly, don’t ask) and see it miraculously only take out the evil Pechenegs who are in close combat with Vladimir’s followers, I decided enough was enough.  I had wanted to explore how the film was using history to try to make sense of contemporary political and religious issues, how it was forcing us to determine whether or not it was drawing a favorable or negative comparison to Russian society and the Putin regime, but instead, nah.  I think the director, the very capable Andrey Kravchuk, simply wanted us to sit back, enjoy the sex, enjoy the violence, and walk away with the sense that the Russian Orthodox Church is really keen.

Image result for александра бортич викингWhat did I learn?  That instead of whitewashing history, sometimes a film has to dark-wash it.  And that a man in full stride will run another three steps when his head is lopped off by a handsome iron sword.  And that some women, no matter how filthy everything around them might be, can still have lustrous, bright shiny hair.

Doc was entertained by the film, but mostly for the wrong reasons.  For that reason, I’ll toss this one a B-.


Watch Like Doc: “Battle for Sevastopol” (Битва за Севастополь) wish I could put the Ukrainian title of the film in the header – they refer to the Ukrainian-language version of the film as “Indestructible” (Незламна), and I feel that’s a better representation of the movie than the Russian (and American-translated) title.  There was no “Battle for Sevastopol” – there was a series of battles to defend that city which ultimately failed.

I’ll just put this out there right off the bat – there was a lot to enjoy about this film, but ultimately I was pretty disappointed with the final product.  First, some interesting background I picked up during the before-and-after discussions during the symposium.  This is the last joint Russian and Ukrainian enterprise, in terms of cinema, before the Russian invasion of Crimea and hostilities in eastern Ukraine.  The movie was released in cinemas in both countries, in their own languages, shortly before things fell apart sharply between the two.  The movie was very well received in both countries, although we are told that many elements in Ukraine feel it is a little too pro-Russian, whereas many in Russia feel it is far too pro-Ukrainian.  You can’t please everyone.

Image result for людмила павличенкоDoc’s one of those people you can’t please all the time.  This is a biographical depiction of the wartime years of Lyudmila (Lyuda) Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian-born Soviet sniper who, during World War 2, killed over 300 German soldiers.  The movie is actually told from the point of view of Eleanor Roosevelt, who hosted Lyuda during a 1942 effort on the part of the Soviet Union to bring the Americans, still freshly ensconced in their first year of the war, to fight side-by-side with the Soviets instead of simply continuing the Lend-Lease Program.  We see Lyuda shortly before the war, resolute and dedicated, showing the boys that she could compete with them in a shooting match at school.  Her excellent performance (47 points out of a possible 50) is noticed by the local Commissar, and she is sent off to sniper school.  When Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union from a number of fronts, Lyuda is fiercely determined to play her role.  She is recognized almost immediately as not only a superb sniper, but also the daughter of a true hero from the Civil War – a military veteran who seems to have no time for the young woman, as he had always wanted a son.  During the film, through flashbacks that are relayed from Mrs Roosevelt, we see Lyuda fighting in the Battle of Odessa and the failed defense of Sevastopol. There’s a lot to be amazed at regarding this young woman.

What didn’t Doc like about the movie?  Plenty, unfortunately.  The fact that a large percentage of the movie takes place in the US (Washington DC and Chicago) provides way too many opportunities for Russians and/or Ukrainians to play speaking parts of Americans, with insufficient money spent on dialogue coaches.  The heavily-accented exchanges are almost, but not completely, covered by the Russian overdubbed for the benefit of Russian audiences.  If you think Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery spoke Russian fluently in Firefox and The Hunt for Red October, then this won’t bother you as much as it did me.

Related imageSomeone at some point of the production made a decision to inject modern music into the film during a battle sequence.  Because up to that point we had been treated to music that was contemporary to that time, the sound of an electric guitar as a backdrop to sung entreaties to fight heroically was jarring and intrusive.  Picture Charlton Heston’s Moses parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee the Egyptian Army, while Kenny Loggins sings “Out into the danger zone…” in the background.  No.  No no no.

Peppered throughout the film are elements meant to symbolize Lyuda’s home and her first love; rather than adding a level of poignancy through subtlety, the symbolism was heavy-handed and predictable.  We won’t even mention the criminally unnecessary sex scene, thrown in for no obvious reason.  My shoulders ache from all the shrugging.

Finally, there is a question of over-acting.  Actually, it’s not a question at all, but an exclamation.  Sometimes less is so much more.

We’re told that the making of the film was controversial and complicated, both structurally and ideologically – whose memory of the war are we seeing?  A Russian point of view, or Ukrainian?  Again, that problem is solved through the device of using Eleanor Roosevelt as our guide.  It actually worked, though.

There’s plenty to like about this film.  It’s disjointed, but can be entertaining for someone looking for a mindless way to cinematically pass the time.  It’s just not Doc’s cup of tea.  I’ll offer it a C rating, and just say hope your experience goes better than mine.

Watch Like Doc: “Pagans” (Язычники)“Pagans” (Язычники) is one of the most humorously-depicted sad films I’ve seen in a long time.  Not sad overall, certainly not ugly-face cry into your hands sad – it ends on an uplifting note, but … Bah, let me just explain.

In “Pagans,” we are introduced to five main characters – married couple Oleg and Marina, in their mid-40s, their 20-year-old daughter Kristina, the neighbor and sometimes handyman Botsman (a.k.a. Kolya), and Oleg’s estranged mother, Natalya Stepanovna.  Oleg, Marina, and Kristina live together in a small apartment and are, at best, mildly dysfunctional.  At the beginning of the movie, we see Kristina walking gently across a frozen lake and break through the ice – this is interspersed with footage of Natalya plunging into the icy liquid of another body of water to mark the Orthodox Epiphany.  Kristina is rushed home, tended to by Dad, who is trying to revive her – her responses to her parents’ concerned queries lead us to believe that her dip into the ice hole was not unintentional, and that she may also be under the influence of this or that.

Related imageEnter Natalya Stepanovna.  She has returned from an unexplained 15-year absence, walking in the light of God and insistently coaxing the other family members into her spirituality.  She observes how the lazy alcoholic Botsman swears up a storm when trying to “borrow” 50 rubles for cigarettes (that is, vodka); Natalya chides him for swearing, saying his profane tongue is an abomination before the Lord.  Still, despite the others’ protests, she hands Botsman a fistful of change, but warns him against using it for liquor.  Botsman grabs the money and storms out, still swearing up a storm.

We next see Botsman preparing his meal (pickles, bread, and vodka) ritualistically, but see that he is physically unable to open the bottle,  We later see that whenever he tries to Image result for язычники фильмswear, his tongue feels an incredible jolt, not unlike an electric shock.  Something’s afoot, and it may very well be that Natalya has put the fear of God in Botsman’s every move.  He later tells Oleg that he has actually seen the face of death, and that he feels compelled to turn his life around – every day could be his last, and he has work to do.  No longer a lazy contractor, he completes the work he has been putting off in Marina’s kitchen in a single day, and begins taking care of other projects that he wasn’t asked or paid to do.

Image result for язычники фильм кристинаMeanwhile, Kristina is at times ambivalent, at times hostile to her grandmother’s insistence on foisting her spirituality on the family.  Intruding into Kristina’s room, Natalya begins blessing the room, spraying holy water everywhere.  She sees Kristina’s behavior as driven by demons that possess her – demons that gained entry into her soul through the fact that she’s not been baptized.  It is her plan to lock Kristina in for a week until such time as the local pastor can come in to baptize the girl.  This comes with mom’s blessing, as she is now falling into the spirit cast about by her well-meaning mother-in-law.

Image result for язычники фильмTragedy strikes with another suicide attempt by the troubled Kristina, putting her in a coma.  The last straw for Oleg is seeing his mother and the local pastor baptizing the girl in the hospital; he and his wife cannot be present in the room for the ceremony, as they are deemed to be impure.  Slowly but surely, Oleg feels that for whatever good his mother’s religion has brought to the family, it also has inserted a certain level of upheaval, and certainly has taken away his ability to choose for himself.  He is assisted in separating grandma from Kristina by none other than Botsman, who himself has realized that it was not so much faith, but fear and gullibility on his part, that stayed his hand and tongue from the vices he so prolifically once enjoyed.  He asserts that yes, he probably was outwardly a better man without drink and profanity, but religion brought him fear and despair at every turn, and stripped him of happiness – no way for anyone to live their life.

Image result for язычники фильмThe ending is bittersweet.  Kristina survives, in spite of Natalya’s forewarning that she certainly would die on Easter Sunday, the best day for anyone – believer and sinner alike – to die.  In the film’s climax, we learn of Natalya’s motivations for having submersed herself in her religion – at once heartbreakingly selfless and agonizingly selfish – and we’re not sure if her removal once again from her son’s family is fair treatment, but as Botsman said, if religion fills you with fear, anxiety, and guilt at every turn, perhaps it isn’t the right thing for you.

The film ends with an epilogue, in which Oleg, Marina, and Kristina address the camera and catch us up on how things have been since the events unfolded in the film.  Again, there is a lot of bittersweetness there, but also hope; each in their own way, these three have either found happiness in spite of everything, or have certainly found the road to happiness.  There is a good deal of resolution, but at a true cost of sadness.  One can’t appreciate sweetness without the taste of tartness every now and then.

Some observations about the film from members of the audience:

One viewer suggested that the film (and the play the film was based on) might be making a statement that the Orthodox Church in Russia might be growing too strong; it certainly is a political power, with its steady symbiotic relationship with Vladimir Putin.  Too much of a good thing can quickly turn bad, even with the best of intentions.  We see this warning bell also rung in the excellent but chilling film “The Student” (Ученик), which has plenty of parallels with this movie – albeit with fewer laughs.

Another asked “So who are the pagans in the movie?”  There are allusions to pagans in an African tribe that Botsman ran into while serving in the Navy; it is also clearly alluded to that Oleg and his family are most likely considered pagans by Natalya, at least when she is first brought back into the fold.  But the argument was put forward that Natalya herself, along with the rest of the Church, could be the pagans – certainly, pagans in the truest definition of the word, from the eyes of non-believers – a derogatory term to describe those who don’t have the same faith as, say, you and I.  An interesting perspective.

Finally, someone pointed to all of the events that seemed to happen as a result of (or in spite of, in the case of Kristina’s recovery) Natalya’s efforts and beliefs.  These were often breathlessly referred to by Natalya herself as a miracle.  In fact, the viewer inquired, did any actual miracles take place?  What is finding happiness, in the face of bleakness all around you, if not a miracle?

The movie was very good, and often very funny; in spite of some pretty dark material and a sense of loss when the credits roll, I’d have to say this is my favorite of the symposium thus far.  It’s won a number of awards over the past year that it’s been out and about, all well-deserved in my book.  Doc’s not afraid to offer this film an A.  I heartily recommend it.