Saturday, 12 March 2011

Vitali Melnikov: Poor, Poor Pavel - Бедный бедный Павел (2003)

Poor, Poor Pavel (2003)

Directed by Vitali Melnikov.
With Viktor Sukhorukov, Oleg Yankovskiy, Oksana Mysina

Golden Eagle Award for Best Motion Picture 2003

The title of the film quotes the phrase with which Emperor Paul, played by Viktor Sukhorukov, once heard himself addressed by his great-grandfather, Peter I, in a hallucinatory vision. It expresses the remorse and self-pity that Paul feels on the eve of his assassination by imperial guards. At the same time, it alludes to the bequest that the founder of Russia’s 18th century left for his heirs and it serves thematically to unite the three films of Vitalii Mel'nikov’s historical trilogy, which include The Royal Hunt (1990) and Tsarevich Alexei (1997). Paul is portrayed to a certain extent as a victim and the intellectual appeal of the film is in deciphering the particular workings of palace politics and the degree to which blame can be placed directly upon Paul for the tragedy of his brief reign.

Poor, Poor Pavel (2003)

The film is symptomatic of post-Soviet Russia’s tendency to humanize the rulers of Imperial Russia, as can be seen most clearly in the rehabilitation of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Paul is portrayed as a man who suffered under the long reign of his mother, Catherine II, during which he was forced to spend the prime years of his life shut out of state affairs. He continues to suffer as he struggles to impose his will upon the immovable object that is the Russian Empire. Although his behavior often approaches the limit of what might be considered normal for an adult, at no point does he appear before us as a madman. The portrayal of a man whose sanity hangs by a thread that might snap at any moment is a difficult task, but one that Sukhorukov manages with great skill. Mel'nikov’s decision to cast this particular actor in the role of Paul was perhaps a more fateful one than he realized. As portrayed by Sukhorukov, Paul shows none of the tendencies toward despotism that might have been expected (and were demonstrated so well by the actor in his first major movie role, that of the proto-fascist Viktor in Iurii Mamin’s Sideburns). Nor does this Tsar, even in his toughest moments, manifest the kind of cold-hearted indifference to violence and suffering that we saw portrayed in Aleksei Balabanov’s two Brother films. Paul’s one allusion to himself as "a freak" is soon forgotten, thus suggesting but then dropping the theme of another one of Sukhorukov’s well-known portrayals (Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men). Paul is almost but never quite "over the top," and thus falls short of what many viewers might expect from this particular actor. Perhaps this serves as a psychological factor as critics and film-festival juries have tended to praise the work of veteran actor Oleg Iankovskii while overlooking that of the film’s nominal star.

Poor, Poor Pavel (2003)

Count von Pahlen, played by Iankovskii, is the center of intrigue in the film. His quiet machinations lead to an unexpectedly suspenseful climax, in which the viewer is left wondering just where Pahlen stands in a complex web of conspiracy and deception. His own personal motives remain completely in the dark, leaving the viewer with no choice but to conclude that his actions are motivated by nothing other than an almost altruistic desire to do what is best for the State. At several points in the film he declares himself ready to accept full responsibility for the plot should things go wrong, but in the end, he remains almost miraculously without guilt. He never has the chance to use the document he has obtained from Alexander, and when blood is spilled, it is against his explicit orders. He has managed to engineer a palace coup without actively participating in any aspect of its execution. ...

Reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2004 in KinoKultura

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