Saturday, 8 January 2011

Vladimir Bortko: Taras Bulba (2009)

Directed by : Vladimir BORTKO
Writing credits : Vladimir BORTKO
Based on Gogol's novel
Mikhail BOYARSKY (Михаил БОЯРСКИЙ) ...Mossi Chilo
Vladimir ILIN (Владимир ИЛЬИН) ...Kourennoï
Liubomiras LAUCIAVICIUS (Любомирас ЛАУЦЯВИЧЮС) ...Mazovetski, voïvode polonais
Magdalena MIELCARZ (Магдалена МЕЛЬЦАЖ) ...Pannotchka
Daniel OLBRYCHSKI (Даниель ОЛЬХБРЫХСКИЙ) ...Krasnevski
Igor PETRENKO (Игорь ПЕТРЕНКО) ...Andri
Bogdan STUPKA (Богдан СТУПКА) ...Taras Boulba
Vladimir VDOVICHENKOV (Владимир ВДОВИЧЕНКОВ) ...Ostap
Cinematography : Dmitriy MASS (Дмитрий МАСС)
Production design : Marina NIKOLAYEVA (Марина НИКОЛАЕВА), Vladimir SVETOZAROV (Владимир СВЕТОЗАРОВ), Sergei YAKUTOVICH (Сергей ЯКУТОВИЧ)
Companies : Central Partnership, Telekanal Rossiya
Release date in Russia : 02/04/2009

First prize Festival "Vivat Kino Rossii", Russia, 2009
Best actor Aleksey PETRENKO , Festival "Vivat Kino Rossii", Russia, 2009
Best actor Bogdan STUPKA , Golden Eagle awards, Russia, 2009

Propaganda or just good business?

Vladimir Bortko is one of Russia's most famous film directors. His film "Taras Bulba" went on general release in April 2009. It was more of a political event than a cultural one. For it reflects the current mind set and its problems very clearly: the elite aspiring to become part of Western culture, while at the same time assuring Russians of its Russianness.

The film attracted a great deal of attention for several reasons. Firstly, it was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Gogol, one of Russia's greatest writers, whose work is studied by every schoolchild in the country. Recently, events such as the anniversary of a major writer have become an occasion for a large-scale propaganda campaign. In Petersburg, for example, Gogol now looks down at passers-by from dozens of advertising posters on streets in the city centre.

Secondly, "Taras Bulba" is a special story: it's very patriotic, which is not particularly typical of Gogol's work. At the centre of the tale are the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were free and independent of the Tsar. They lived in what is now part of Ukraine and fought with Poland in the 15th-17th centuries (Gogol does not indicate the exact time of the events he describes). The story tells how Andrii, the son of the main character, Colonel Taras Bulba, betrays the Cossacks because of his love for a Polish woman. Taras kills his son with his own hands, demonstrating that loyalty to the nation is more important than any personal feelings of love. He himself eventually suffers a painful death at the hands of the Poles.

Thirdly, Vladimir Bortko became famous during the late 1980s, when he made the excellent film based on the story "The Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov was a major Russian (Soviet) writer of the first half of the 20th century, whose works were not popular with the Soviet authorities. "The Heart of a Dog" had a clear anti-Soviet message, poking fun at the values on which the Soviet state was founded. When "Taras Bulba" was released, many people were interested to see how Bortko, the critic of Soviet morals, would position himself now as a supporter of the state and a patriot.

Predictably, "Taras Bulba" provoked bitter disputes. Russian filmgoers were divided into two groups: those who fully appreciated the filmmakers' patriotism, and those who had some serious questions for Mr. Bortko.

Firstly, why did the director and screenwriter feel it necessary to rewrite Gogol? He is a classic of Russian literature, and not just some hack writing scripts for contemporary films.

Secondly, how does the work of Vladimir Bortko as the director of the famous "Heart of a Dog" fit in with the work of Vladimir Bortko the director of "Taras Bulba"?
Let us try to answer these questions.

In Gogol's text the conflict between the Cossacks and the Poles arises because the Cossacks live by raiding their neighbours and are fed up with sitting around and doing nothing. They are spoiling for a battle with the Turkish Sultan. Their entire way of life is a series of battles and the capture of trophies. Cossacks are at war so often that they rarely live to old age or die a natural death.

In Gogol's story the Koshevoy (leader elected by the Cossacks) refuses to start a war, saying that he has signed a peace treaty with the Sultan. The Cossacks then decide to have an election to replace the peace-loving Koshevoy, but at this moment refugees from the west bring them news of outrages inflicted by Poles and Jews on the defenceless Cossacks. The infuriated Cossacks immediately start a Jewish pogrom and take up arms against the Poles, rather than the Sultan.

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