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It is my view that we need more efficient ways of documenting film. Emotional response is fine but fickle and, to me, untrustworthy. Film history educates but is really dry and boring. Talking about technique is simple navel-gazing complacency. The point is that film flows from actual life that is immensely complex and inviting. Make no mistake, it is the pinnacle of the arts at this point and for a long time now. We can use it to both invigorate sense of the world and our own reasoning tools.
So I have been surveying the early days of the medium looking for interesting threads that weave together the evolution of entire worlds. One such I have found in Japan, that is documented elsewhere.
The other is right here. And because the technique now seems primitive, and the emotional response is likewise hampered by having refined our own selves and viewing habits further than these films operated on, we can focus on this one aspect; film as forging of soul.
1917 Russia. Civil unrest on-and-off goes back several decades. One-third of the world is at the brink of cataclysmic change.
So at this point comes a film where the czar is portrayed as having an amorous, extra-marital affair. In order to obscure the matter, he frames a young military officer to marry this woman, a brilliant man we're told, save for his rash temper, scion of an aristocratic family and groomed to lead, the future of this ruling elite about to be destroyed we can presume. Our man finds out about the plot and outraged at worldly hypocrisy, he disavows rank and status and becomes a monk.
But this corrupt world catches up with him again in the monastery, it should not be missed that the abbot maintains friendly relations with the military aristocracy, so our man exiles himself even further and becomes a hermit.
All through the film we are treated to very impressive transformations of our character, from young impertinent cadet to old decrepit hermit, on par with anything Lon Chaney accomplished and without any of the caricature. No, we're watching a natural actor at work here, an early Daniel Day-Lewis, one who does not attack the role from outside but rather embodies the sullen, mortified look. He makes even the heavy makeup around of the eyes seem natural and as though it has slowly crept in from decades of bitterness and resentment.
This was going to be Ivan Mozzhukhin's last film in his own country, soon after completion he was going to be forced into exile along with the filmmakers and most of the cast shown here. They would make the next film on the trail, the Ermolief trail leading from Yalta into Paris. He would surface again in the time of the first great French school. He would have the chance to be immortalized as Napoleon in Abel Gance's historic production, but opted instead to be Casanova for Volkoff, one of the filmmakers who filmed him in this.
This is very much what the film is about, an aristocract who no longer has a place in the world and has to disappear. The hermit is gaunt and half-mad in his cabin, but at least safe and far from what he would have nothing to do with. Except temptation visits him one last time.
Another amorous woman, very much like the one he courted and had to flee from, who once again taunts him, promises sex, and the old man now has to cut off his finger to fight the urge. This prompts the local populace to celebrate him as a saint and make pilgrimages to his place to get his blessing.
But this is the thing, the karmic dynamics at work shaping destiny in and out of the film.
This is what I'm talking about. We know that our man was never a spiritual person. We know that he's never, even during his long ascetic years, managed to find a center for himself. Even as a hermit, he has the same rash temper as years ago the cadet and the merest flicker of turbulent life sends him reeling. And he has so many fingers to cut before he succumbs to temptation. In the end, he's merely swept aside by authorities as one more vagabond en route to Siberia.
Nevertheless, the dynamics of this world at the time were such, I assume, that the narrative must have registered in the national heart on the level of tragic Russian hero broken by a lawless, cruel system, and the protagonist who starts off as 'one of them', is eventually washed up in the lowest class and cast out. Religion is shown to offer no shelter. Yet no responsibility over one's own actions is ever really asserted.
So of course these dynamics would erupt in violent revolution against the characters portrayed here, that same year, but see, including the actual actors, Mozzhukhin most notably, why else, because they had been unlucky to be celebrated by the populace and amass a fortune.
Father Sergiy, blind to the mechanisms that control his suffering and constantly fleeing from himself, really is Russian soul at the crossroads.
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