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Edwin E. Reed
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A modern and even scandalous movie for it's time...
"Otets Sergei" is a film that couldn't have been made in any other time period. Literally. The censorship of Czar-era Russia had tight regulations concerning religion and politics (the portrayal of the royal family). This movie was made before the revolution of 1917 in a time of turmoil, it could just barely be made then; boasting the name of Tolstoy being a big asset. After the revolution, no such movie would be made for a long time.
Otets Sergei has both a very unconventional religious figure and it portraits the Czar as having extra-marital relationships. At heart it is the life story of a young successful army officer, prince Kasatsky, who unknowingly falls in love with the mistress of the Czar. When he eventually finds out the truth about his soon-to-be-married wife (she wants to marry him to stop the rumors about her affair with the Czar), he is so shocked that he retreats to a monastery to become a monk (and after years Father Sergei). Later he battles with the temptations of sexual lust and the dreams of how things could have been.
The movie has many uncommonly modern characteristics. Besides the daring subject it has a rather strongly developed lead character, good storytelling and cinematography and a script which deals with human emotions without being exploitative or sentimental. Altogether it has a very modern touch to it for a movie made in 1917, although the lack of sound (originally it had a score played live to the audience) does make it a little weary at times. Still it is a prime example of the art film movement of pre-soviet Russia and a timeless story of unfulfilled love.
The film has a typical "Russian ending", with almost total humiliation of the central figure, but it is not there to morally condemn Kasatsky, it's just that this was how stories like this always ended in the tragedy genre. One could see a moral lesson here, but to me what makes this movie interesting is that it doesn't seem to want to give one.
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