Monday, 21 March 2011

Andrei Konchalovsky: Siberiade - Сибириада (1978)

Director: Arthur Peleshyan, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Leonid Eidlin.
Scenario: Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Valentin Ezhov.
Cast: Alexander Potapov, Leonid Pleshakov, Alexander Yakovlev, Natalia Andreichanka, Ludmila Gurchenko, Ivan Dmitriev, Paul Kadochnikov, Mikhail Kononov, Elena Koreneva, Yevgeny Leonov-Gladyshev, Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksandr Pankratov-Cherny, Vladimir Samoilov, Sergei Shakurov
Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival - 1979.

An auteur with many styles, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is an extravert filmmaker whose imagination often needs a wake-up call from the outside. He has banked on the literary classics (Turgenev's Nest of Gentry and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya); genre stereotypes (Romance of the Lovers); other directors' concepts (Akira Kurosawa's script for Runaway Train); and his own past (his 1994 Ryaba My Chicken is a "sequel" to his 1967 Asya's Happiness). In 1979, three years after the release of 1900, Konchalovsky made Siberiade, an epic as indebted to Bernardo Bertolucci's masterpiece as it was ambitious, beautiful, and uneven.

Like 1900, Siberiade scans several decades, from the early days of the century to the 1960s. Like 1900, it focuses on several generations of two families—one rich, one poor—which are the entire population of the village of Elan in the midst of the Siberian swamps. Like 1900, it is a Tolstoyan novel of a movie, overpopulated with well- and notso-well developed characters who appear and disappear like patterns in a kaleidoscope; broad and deliberately paced; keen on detail; determinist in its view of history; and in love with a landscape. Like 1900, it is exhaustingly long—3.5 hours—(in Russia it was first shown as a 4-part television mini-series) and hard to embrace at one sitting. It also contains at least one direct reference to Bertolucci's film in the scene where a boy, armed with a rifle, guards a village "capitalist" whose time has passed.

Every historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Gone With the Wind, from Intolerance to Apocalypse Now, is driven by a secret desire to exhaust the subject and the genre. Siberiade, whose title suggests nothing less than that we see its creator as a Homer of moving images, succeeds unyieldingly in this. The film is confidently directed by Konchalovsky who remains unintimidated by the scope of the story, breathtakingly photographed by Levan Paatashvili, and perfectly cast, with a stand-out performance by Nikita Mikhalkov, Konchalovsky's half-brother and director of Slave of Love, Dark Eyes, and Close to Eden. But the true meaning and charm of Siberiade comes from the tension that sets it aside from other epics—the tension between the film's ambition and the historical circumstances under which this ambition had to be realized.

The oblivious 1970s were hardly the best time in Russia to probe history, but inability to tell the whole truth, strangely, works for and not against Siberiade. To offset the film's historical stance, unavoidably official, Konchalovsky plays out history as a grand melodrama that stretches and strives to be a tragedy.

Bertolucci opened with Verdi's death and closed at the end of World War II, because in the first forty-five years of this century he found the arena for a tragedy of global proportions: the death of aristocracy, rebirth of the proletariat, and ruthless march of the Fascist bourgeoisie. Konchalovsky's chronology is more arbitrary: he skips the l950s and closes in the 1960s, but it says very little about his understanding of historical processes and logistics. While Bertolucci's drama served the history, Konchalovsky's history serves the drama.

In the heat of the decline of the communist empire, Soviet culture was made either by sell-outs, or by escapists. A totalitarian state gives its own interpretation to escapism—not from the hardships of life, but from tenets of ideology. Some artists, like Tarkovsky, escaped into cerebral esoterica of "auterism"; some, like Nikita Mikhalkov, into the stylized past; some, like the director of Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov, into Hollywood-style melodrama; some, like Georgian filmmakers, into folklore. This may be why Russian intelligentsia adored Garcia Marquez, as a loophole into the world unconstrained by the laws of materialist dialectics.

Konchalovsky, in a rare attempt to materialize "magic realism," creates a world in which the truth comes not from the newspaper Pravda, but from a star, shining over the village of Elan as a reminder of a higher order, and from pine-trees that talk and weep. In this world, animals listen to people, and those who listen to animals don't age. That this world is a compromise between magic and dogma is an important part of what Siberiade is really about.

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