The Russian videocassette for this film has a banner across the top, reading, "Lityeraturnaya klassika na ekranye", in other words, "A Literary Classic on the Screen". This is an adaptation, by the great Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk, of Alexander Pushkin's classic historical drama, "Boris Godunov". Pushkin is considered the creator of Russian literature, and the film appears to take its responsibility to him seriously. Pushkin's is the only name to appear in the film before the title.
I have never had an opportunity to see this film in a subtitled version, and I don't speak any Russian. That's less of a problem than it might appear, since Modest Mussorgsky adapted Pushkin's play for his "Boris Godunov", arguably the best-known Russian opera in the West. I can follow the film's plot through my familiarity with the operatic version (and with the opera's cinematic incarnation directed in 1955 by Vera Stroyeva).
Here director Bondarchuk himself plays the title role, the Russian boyar who murdered the son and heir of Ivan the Terrible, the boy Dimitri, and usurped the throne for himself. But Czar Boris suffers from the knowledge of his deeds, and an ambitious young monk now claims to be the murdered child fully grown -- he's called the False Dimitri -- and has raised an army in Poland to attack Boris. The story takes place around the year 1600. (Modern histories still debate the actual events, some saying that the historical Boris may have been the victim of a later smear campaign.)
Bondarchuk is an interesting choice to play Boris. He has a wonderfully craggy face and an appropriately regal bearing -- he is a film director after all -- so he looks right for the part. I consider his dramatic projection to be somewhat underdeveloped however. The Russian bass, Alexander Pirogov, singing the part in the 1955 film version, I found to be more anguished in his portrayal, and stronger generally.
Bondarchuk seems to have wanted no reminders of that earlier film so none of Mussorgsky's music is used here at all, even incidentally. The composer he chose instead was Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov. Bondarchuk assembled an impressive crew in addition to his huge cast. Ovchinnikov and cinematographer Vadim Yusov worked on many of the great Andrei Tarkovsky films, right back to "My Name Is Ivan" in 1962.
Visually, Bondarchuk uses his crew to offer up quite a feast. There are so many amazing exteriors and interiors of churches and palaces that sometimes you believe the director got his funding from Intourist, the Soviet tourist bureau. I can't name all the churches shown -- St. Basil's in Red Square is the really familiar one -- but they are all recognizable. I may know them from the earlier "Boris", or possibly from "Prince Igor", the 1970 film based on Alexander Borodin's opera also taken from Russian history.
This film looks to have been expensive to produce, so needing four countries to back it comes as no surprise. The film's closing credits for some reason -- to indicate the international interest in the subject matter perhaps -- very carefully note the nationality of each non-Soviet participant in the cast and crew.
Non-Soviet viewers will find a lot to appreciate in Bondarchuk's mise en scène. Massed battle scenes accompany the False Dimitri's invasion of Russia. The bleak snowy winter landscape, wind-swept and smoke-shrouded, makes one think that he's watching a cinematic version of "War and Peace". It's no coincidence that Bondarchuk is best known in the West for "Voina i mir", his epic film of Count Tolstoy's novel, widely available here only in its condensed 6-hour cut.
Bondarchuk provides other striking sequences. There is the torture scene of Boris's victims being roasted on the wheel, shot silent, accompanied by music and effects only.
A significant character in the story is the Simpleton, the troubled man who confronts the guilt-ridden Boris, and represents his conscience. Bondarchuk has him dressed in rags as he walks through the snow barefoot. As played by Ivan Lapikov, the Simpleton resembles Christ, with intense eyes of infinite sadness.
Boris has a dream in which he sees Moscow engulfed by a conflagration, and then his own severed head, like John the Baptist's, lying on a salver.
Colossal bells appear twice, seeming to symbolize Boris's power, precarious even at its height, shattering at its inevitable collapse.
Overall, I found much to appreciate in Sergei Bondarchuk's treatment of the story. However his direction often seemed to lack the animation I would have anticipated. My involvement with the story was much lower than it was in the case of Stroyeva's 1955 version, which is the one I definitely prefer at present. Perhaps the absence of subtitles can account for this impression, perhaps not. I really do hope to have a chance someday to see a subtitled print of this film.
There has been a CD release of Mussorgsky's "Boris", on the Arlecchino label, of an historical performance dating from 1948, I believe it is, with a line-up resembling that of the 1955 film, starring Pirogov as Boris, and conducted by Nikolai Golovanov.
A final personal note: I was particularly interested in seeing myself in this film, that is to say, my namesake, Varlaam, the shabby loud-mouthed drunken monk character. Here he's played by Georgi Burkov and is very convincingly grotty-looking. In 1955, Krivchenya's nose was much bigger and redder than Burkov's, as I recall. I feel honoured to be portrayed by either man, so I'm declaring the result a tie.
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