Reviews of Russian Movies on DVD by Richard J. Brzostek


Zvenigora (1928)

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko;

Zvenigora is a mountain in Ukrainian that holds a secret. Buried somewhere in it, is an ancient Scythian treasure that has been searched for for nearly as long as it was buried. For some insight into the name, "gora" is the Polish word for mountain (although it isn't in Ukrainian), so the name could be considered "Zveni-mountain." Considering Zvenigora is this hill/mountain, the possible connection is hard to dismiss.

The film begins in the 17th century with a large group of Ukrainians searching for Poles who are trying to find the treasures in the earth of Zvenigora. They meet an old man from the area who agrees to help them save the treasure. The old man is a central figure to the film as he is always there, at every point in time. From the present time (1928) to prehistory when Scythians lived on Ukrainian soil, the old man witnesses all of the events that happen. In the present time, the old man teaches his grandson about the legend and passes on the tradition of their history.

Albeit a Russian film, Zvenigora is all about Ukrainian history. Zvenigora is also considered the first part in Alexander Dovzhenko's Ukrainian trilogy. It shares in common with the other parts not only the fact that it presents Ukrainian history, but also takes on a lot of issues for a silent film. The stories are not completely simple and leave us having to connect some of the details. They also all show us the wars Ukraine endured in the early part of the 20th century. Zvenigora differs from the other parts in that it shows more of the Ukrainian lore and legends than the other parts. Dovzhenko's films are different than modern cinema and resemble visual poetry.


Arsenal (1928)

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko;

Alexander Dovzhenko brings us into a chaotic time in Ukrainian history with Arsenal -- a silent Russian movie made in 1928. The action takes place at the end of World War I and the several subsequent wars that shortly followed it. Albeit a silent movie, it takes on balancing the story of several people and their emotions, as well as expressing these things in an artistic way. Not everything is expressed in the dialogue text, so seeing the meaning of various actions and symbolism helps one appreciate the many memorable scenes of this film.

Knowing about the history of this time is helpful, but not essential (although it will probably take watching it at least twice to take it all in). This period was a confusing time in Ukraine, but the various groups can be distinguished by their clothing. As simple as it may be, their clothing are a giveaway of who they support. There is a group that resurrected 17th century fashions wearing zupons -- but instead of matchlock pistols they have revolvers. And probably as polar opposite to that are the Bolsheviks, who are ultimately portrayed as the "heroes" of the film. The main characters are obviously all workers and revolutionaries as Dovzhenko himself was a Ukrainian but supported the Soviets.

Ukrainian history is a bit confusing and complicated, especially at this time period. It isn't simplified in this movie, but it also isn't made terribly complicated by mentioning too many names, dates and places. The movie mentions there were four wars in four years, but doesn't get into any more details than that. The bottom line is there were a number of groups within the country that supported various political ideas. Although by no means did I think the whole film was propaganda, but a few parts are unmistakable for anything else. All in all, the movie amazingly brings to life this time period, but as it was actually made not too long after the actual events took place, it is more powerful than if something along these lines were made today.


Earth (1930)

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko;

Silent films are quite unusual compared to modern cinema. Earth, released in 1930, shows us the cycle of life and the differences between four generations without the spoken word. It shows us the change, such as the arrival of the first tractor to the area and how life was never the same after the coming of the machines. Throughout the story, there is a subtle to very obvious assault on the wealthy class and religion.

Viewers of silent films are more pressed to use other senses, paying more attention to expressions and the music that sets the feeling. Getting past the difference in the way the story is told, one can appreciate the beauty presented. Earth has some amazing scenes that one could expect in the stunning countryside. Just as there is a gap between when the words are said and when we can read them, there are also some details that we must fill in to create the large picture and give meaning to the more obvious details.

Earth is considered to be one of director Alexander Dovzhenko's greatest achievements. Dovzhenko was one of the leading directors in early Soviet cinema and he conforms with the party line. The propaganda side to his film is impossible to miss. Without a doubt, Earth is very different than most movies and will be an experience that is unlike any other. If one isn't into the politics presented, there is always the art side to it that can be appreciated.


By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko;

I have to admit, I am a big fan of world cinema of the 1930s. There is something classy about these movies that appeals to me. These films are more about having a good story and acting, not fancy special effects. There is something romantic about the cinema of the 1930s as well; it isn't unusual for the characters to fall in love at first sight or for a group of people to start singing at any point. By the Bluest of Seas is a Russian movie that fits right in with the other European films I have watched from this time period.

The story begins with two men washing up on the shore of an island in Soviet Azerbaijan. Within a minute of stepping foot on land, both of the men fall in love -- but with the same woman. They squabble and compete with each other on which of them will be with her, except she is hardly aware of any of this. While most of the story is presented in a serious way, there is obviously some humor to it. The comic parts are unexpectedly spread throughout the movie, adding a level of sophistication and making it quite fun to watch.

By the Bluest of Seas is a Soviet film, so it does contain some messages that promote socialism and help forge the communist culture. Most of this is done very subtlety, with merely the reaction of the people in the story showing us what they consider right and wrong. One of the most memorable examples of this would be when one of the men scolds the other about not getting out of bed for feeling too "love sick" -- and as a result of him not getting out of bed, the collective farm only caught a small fraction of the fish they normally would have. The ending of the movie also reveals a message, which isn't really political, that resembles a punch line to a joke (but I will save you the details to not spoil any of the fun). It is like a punch line in the sense that the irony is finally revealed and there is a simple moral to the story.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote (1957)

Director: Grigori Kozintsev;

After reading "too many books" about chivalry, Alonso Quijano decides to change his name to Don Quixote and personally rekindle chivalry in the world. This middle-aged man images the world to be much more colourful and romantic than it actually is, giving much amusement to all of those that observe him. For Don Quixote, an inn is a castle; wine jugs are perceived as small ogres and a windmill is a grand monster. Don Quixote doesn't save the world all by himself as he recruits a peasant in his village named Sancho Panza to be his quire by wooing him with eloquent words about bravery and adventure. Don Quixote and his squire are out to be the heroes of their day, however this role isn't an easy one as so many people (including Don Quixote's own family) not only stand in their way, but also actively discourage them from going out to help others.

Despite his best efforts to do well and make the world a better place his actions rarely result in anything improving, and more often than not, backfire. Although Don Quixote has good intentions, the moral of the story that he forever seems to fail to grasp is "no good deed goes unpunished." Don Quixote intends to help people everywhere he travels, but those that meet him find his ways archaic and laughable. Despite being defeated at nearly every turn, the passion that drives Don Quixote does not diminish in the least.

Don Quixote has something magical about it. Just as the novel this movie is based on is considered a masterpiece of literature, I would even go so far as to say this film is a masterpiece of cinema. It creates the feeling of 17th century Spain to the extent that one completely forgets that this is a Russian film.


Hamlet (1964)

Director: Grigori Kozintsev;

Grigori Kozintsev's rendition of Shakespeare's Hamlet is quite remarkable. Although at first it may seem a little odd watching this great work of Shakespeare in Russian, one quickly forgets this fact as the story draws its viewers in. The settings and costumes have an amazing visual impact because they look so authentic. The castle is monstrous and foreboding. The grounds outside of the castle invoke much the same feelings as one side faces the ocean with waves that lap up on the shore littered with massive boulders. On the opposite side, an old graveyard provides Hamlet with the perfect setting to ponder "to be, or not to be."

As you may know, Hamlet is a story about the Danish prince Hamlet that takes revenge on his uncle for killing his father. Hamlet's mother remarries his uncle much to Hamlet's disliking. Unquestionably, it is a sad story with a twisted side. Revenge, murder and death never seem to go away, so there is something timeless about this tale. We may feel sympathetic toward Hamlet at first, but as the story progresses, we see the whole situation is such a mess that there are no easy answers or solutions to the quagmire Hamlet finds himself in. No other word but tragedy describes this story.

The black and white images in this movie are unforgettable. I am sure others would agree that the actors are just as exceptional. In a way, the images being devoid of colour add some extra level of grimness to the overall feeling of the movie. I would say this film is one of those that works amazingly well in black and white, but wouldn't have as much power if it were in colour. If you are into Shakespearian cinema, this Russian version of Hamlet is worth checking out.

King Lear

King Lear (Korol Lir) (1971)

Director: Grigori Kozintsev;

to be

posted later

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

Director: Igor Maslennikov;

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are legendary characters with timeless appeal. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle's third (of four) crime novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes, has some two-dozen film adaptations. The mysteries unraveled by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson appeal to more than just the English speaking world, as can be witnessed by the versions made elsewhere, including the Soviet Union.

Igor Maslennikov directed a Russian language version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1981. This movie is actually the third installment of a TV series about adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but stands alone as a movie quite well. The story is filled with subtle humor, but being quite dry some may not even notice it.

After being asked to help on a case involving murder, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson put their brilliant minds to work looking for clues and unraveling the mystery placed before them. The duo is informed that the murdered man had a curse on his family that originates in the 17th century. The curse involves a hound that lives in the moor that kills those that go out at night, expecically those in the Baskerville family. Of course, our detectives do not belive any family legend with such a supernatural eliment and just want to get to the bottom of mystery. Watching them use logic and carefully disect the situation is very amusing.

The locations in which the movie was filmed are remarkable in the sense that they create the feeling of the English countryside. Baskerville hall and the moor nearby it convincing resemble England and show the film was made with an eye for detail. For those who enjoy the clever wit of Sherlock Holmes, Maslennikov's retention is sure to impress you.


1612 (2007)

Director: Vladimir Khotinenko;

1612 takes place during the time of troubles in Russia and is loosely based on history. It could be called the "time of troubles" not only because a foreign army is occupying the country, but also because there isn't clear leadership to bring them out of the mess. The film doesn't try to be a strict historical film but an adventure that will capture the hearts of the audience. The movie mixes history with mystical and legendary elements; namely, one reoccurring subject is that of unicorns. Even with that said, I could say with a straight face that it doesn't go too far with this into fairly tale land as most parts with unicorns are in dreams or visions.

Polish invaders murdered the royal family but the Polish Hetman (Michal Zebrowski) spared the life of Princess Kseniya, whom he loves and sees as a way to become Czar himself. Andrei (Pyotr Kislov), who also loves Kseniya, ends up as a servant and then mercenary of the Polish Hetman, witnessed the murders and makes it his goal to overthrow the invaders and free the Princess. The love triangle between the three is the crux of much of the conflict.

The villains of this story are the Poles, who wear armor with wings giving them the look of angels, but they strike with fierceness that is more demonic than angelic. Interestingly enough, the Polish Hetman is actually a famous Polish actor, which adds a bit to the realism to the film. To some degree this film is anti-Polish in nature and is not entirely historically accurate but we are reminded that this movie isn't a documentary from time to time by the unicorns. Even with that said, I still think the movie is a lot of fun.

1612 rivals the best historical films in both story and special effects. The action doesn't slow down between the duels, skirmishes, and sieges. I think 1612 particularly excels in showing cannon warfare, in which there is quite a bit of in this movie. I would say 1612 would get an "R" rating by American standards for showing some nudity and quite a bit of violence that doesn't spare us the goriness of war.

Taras Bulba

The Conqueror (Taras Bulba) (2009)

Director: Vladimir Bortko;

Taras Bulba is a historical movie based on the romanticized historical novel by Nikolai Gogol. Although I have not read the novel, the plot of the movie and the plot summary I have read of the revised 1842 edition match pretty well. Set in the 16th century, the story tells the story of an old Cossack named Taras Bulba and his two sons Andriy and Ostap.

When Taras Bulba's sons return home from study in Kiev, they all decide to seek adventure and go to the Zaporozhian Sich. The Cossacks there are restless as it is a time of peace in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth (which they are part of), so they ponder if they should attack the Ottomans or Tartars. When Taras Bulba gets word from one of his men that Poles have killed everyone at his estate, he directs his wrath at them. His man also proclaims the Poles are up to no good in many other regards, so all the Cossacks there are riled up and ready for war.

Knowing that the Russian government produced Taras Bulba is a key detail in understanding the stance the film takes. One could easily construe that this movie contains overtures of propaganda. The movie takes place in Ukraine, but all the Polish hating Cossacks refer to their land as Russia. If one didn't know any better, one would think they are Russians, which they are not. Although Ukraine is mentioned a couple times, it is always presented as if it was part of Russia. You are also not going to be able to escape the many speeches that every dying Cossack gives, in which they sing praise to having the honor to die for Russia.

The evil villains of the story are the Poles. They Poles are inept fighters and their elite forces, the winged hussars, have armor so thin that a Cossack blade can cut right through it. So expect the very worst in every regard when the Poles are concerned in this film. Although we don't get to know any of the Polish characters too much, other then Elzbieta, and to a lesser extent her father. In the few parts of the movie that the Poles speak Polish, there is a voice-over that says the same thing in Russian right afterwards. This is distracting and a little annoying, especially for those of us who understand Polish.

Regardless of the potential propaganda elements, Taras Bulba is still worth seeing. Bogdan Stupka, the actor that portrays Taras Bulba, is perfect for the part and it just might be his best performance to date. One could learn a lot about the Cossacks by watching this movie; from Cossack customs and dress to the general lawlessness of the time in Eastern Europe, the story has a lot to offer, even if from the Russian viewpoint. For the most part, there is great attention to detail and even has actual Polish actors play the role of the Poles. Magdalena Mielcarz, who plays Elzbieta, is beautiful enough to make it believable that Andriy would fall so madly in love with her at first sight.

Taking a closer look at the historical accuracy, there are a few minor flaws that I would like to point out. First, this story is supposed to take place in the 16th century, but the winged hussars have 17th century armor. The helmet with wings that Andriy wears takes it even further, as that is an 18th century Saxon-period helmet. With the exception of point blank range, the breast plate of the hussar armor would have deflected most of the fire it received from either pistol or matchlock rifle.

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