The 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.
So 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.
That 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.
What 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-.