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The first time I saw Aleksander Sokurov's 'The Second Circle' was during a festival in Groningen, The Netherlands. During the credits that opened the film I thought it would have been better to go home and have a nap. Not because of the credits, they were as forbidding as in other Russian films, but because of my condition, severely undermined by lack of sleep and by the bombardment of Greenaway's 'Prospero's Books'. Anyone who goes to see a Sokurov film in those conditions runs the risk of annoying his fellow viewers with loud snoring. Sokurov's aim is not to keep his audience awake by providing entertainment. You have to be in the best of shapes. Or so I thought. What followed was one and a half hours of utmost concentration on a very slow film the dramatic content of which can be summarized in a few sentences. 'The Second Circle' is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. A son returns to the humble abode of his father after receiving the news of his death. We do not learn who he was and in the same way we learn nothing about the son who has to arrange his funeral. What we do see is a room with a bed. In the bed is a corpse. In case of a corpse there is a strict procedure that has to be followed. A doctor has to confirm the death. The only survivor has to pay a visit to the town hall. A bitch (pardon my French) from the funeral parlor arrives to negotiate the price of the funeral, treating the son like an infant. A coffin is delivered, the corpse is embalmed, put in the coffin and taken down the stairs in upright position. What is left behind is an empty room. The End. As is the case with all Russian films that are favoured by the small circle of cinephiles, you can ask yourself what Sokurov's films are all about. 'Days of Darkness' for instance was a magnificent film, but as a western viewer, not familiar with Russian symbolism, you had to wonder whether you had missed the point. According to Andrei Tarkovsky, Sokurov's shining example, the Russian frame of mind is inaccessible to western viewers. The result is endless interpretation. This is true as well for 'The Second Circle', which has led to elaborate speculation concerning the way in which Sokurov comments on contemporary Russian society. But anyone searching for symbolism in 'The Second Circle' is in my view looking at the wrong film, because Sokurov's little masterpiece is as clear as crystal. The preoccupation with death was already present in films like the aforementioned 'Days of Darkness' and in 'Madame Bovary'. In 'The Second Circle' Sokurov has stripped away the mystifying elements of his previous films and laid bare the essence of our frail existence using minimalistic means. Never before in cinema, in which death is often a welcome guest, has the inevitable goal of human life been lit so poignantly.
Nearly black and white. Nearly silent with long, meditative stretches
of somber lingering.
Death writ large on a screen. Sorrow brought home in the starkest of manners.
A father dies, the funeral is arranged and the body prepared, with as much clumsiness as his life was lived and the relationship with his son unfolded an entire life implied by a film about his place of death and the people that temporarily occupy it during the afterdeath.
What's going on here is simple in a way. This is heavily stylized stuff, stylized in a direction of a dramatic acting exercise, where you have all planes and no edges. This is purported to be Tarkovsky's top student, and there is a trademarked Tarkovsky trick of imposing a miniature landscape, here a village at the end. But this isn't the sort of thing Tarkovsky would ever consider, even if his only film were that mess he made with Bergman.
Tarkovsky (despite his puerile books on the subject) approached films by first seeing a complex fabric, some real, some hyperreal. He seems to have dreamed these complex worlds whole because he is able to express them visually as if they only exist in vision. His films have grand arcs with all sorts of facets that gleam in scattered moments, but brightly enough for you to follow each of the dozens of fireflies he allows sometimes in our field of vision. What you get is multiple abstractions, each one inexplicable but all of them together in motion weave a world as if shrinking a flexible cage of pretended limits can define a real person. You leave his films knowing you have seen real life via music.
This is different. It is visually articulate, but in a static sense. Each scene is wonderfully cinematic and the thing is worth seeing on that basis alone. But these are visions of a stage for a single emotion, not a dream tapestry that surrounds millions of shades of all of life. I know Tarkovsky, and this is no Tarkovsky. Not close, unless you are the sort of Soviet commissar that looks at degrees of abstraction and finds them similar. You leave this knowing you have seen a stageplay that we were supposed to read as intense.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
A mesmerizing, devastating study of grief, Sokurov's film definitely shows
the influence of Tarkovsky, but Rembrandt's presence looms as well. The
is shot in EXTREME high contrast with colors so muted it often appears a
bronzed black-and-white. People and surroundings just tenuously emerge into
light suggesting the 'thinness" of everyday reality and the
of life (images are given a two-dimensional quality) when we are suddenly
placed in the omni-presence of death. As our experience of the stability
certainty of life is distanced so too our connection to its movement and
flow is lost. Certainty of purpose and even of identity slip from our
hands. We lose the "why" of any action. We are transfixed by inertia. This
is transcendently illustrated in the scene where the young man stares into
his dead father's eyes. Perhaps the character, while trying to incorporate
the reality of this death, is also searching for who he NOW is since he is
no longer the son of THIS man. What I am trying to say in more basic terms
is that this film expresses the sense of everlasting loss and the sudden
awareness of our own mortality and evanescence, brought on by a death of
someone we love (or are tied to), in a more profound way than almost any
work of art I have encountered.
As another commentator stated, the vision here is crystal clear. No action here SIGNIFIES anything else. Each is given its own substantive weight (how can a man folding up his dead father's bedding signify anything larger or more resonate than that experience itself, if it is presented in its fullness?). Sokurov's effort is to find the moments of immutable truth glimpsed within an ever-shifting human context and consciousness. His work is a lyrical extension of Tarkovsky's effort to capture elemental truths into by eliminating or minimizing context. Thus sound, in particular, is tightly controlled; limited solely to those effects which accent the character's (and our) experience. Idiosyncrasies of buildings and landscapes are virtually eliminated. Individual characteristics and peculiarities of personality are lost in the shadows. The effect is to give us the singular and universal experience of human grief and loss (if that makes any sense). It is interesting to note that the slightest play with the dream-scapes or grotesqueries that this situation could easily conjure would put us squarely in the land of David Lynch's ERASERHEAD, which this film resembles in the materials used its construction (photography, sound, pacing, etc.). Sokhurov, however, is more formally disciplined, and appears more focused on illuminating the waking truths that shape our dreams than animating the dream truths that color our consciousness.
Sorry about the purple (film school) prose but it's very difficult to discuss this film in other terms.
Although this film was made in 1990 it is quite a good critique of the Soviet view of life and (especially) death. It is shot in a beautiful grainy black and white (or sepia and white) with some colors added as in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part II. It has the look of a much earlier (1920's to 30's) Soviet film. The film takes place in a bleak Siberian snowscape of a Soviet industrial small town. The young man's father has died and he has trouble making meaning of the event. The frames of the film are filled with things--material objects. They overwhelm us (and the young man). The System treats the dead man as one of the objects, and help lead us to the inner despair of the hero. There's no hint of the 19th-century "beautiful death" idea here, let alone the American tradition of denying death's reality. The idea of a purely materialist world view is ever-present in this film. Probably the most stunning moment in this film has been mentioned by the other reviewers. I won't give it away any further. Suffice it to say that you will know it when you see it.
i'm a student of cinema and i found in sokurov's work the supreme art of a movie. there was a scene in these movie, when the son, uncappeble of givving is father a decent funeral, opens the eyes of the corpse, just to look into them whit a mist of anger and compreension. note that this was the first and only film this actor made and sokurov turned him in one of the best actors i've ever seen...
I'm writing this as an adjunct to the other reviews here, which explain
the premise of the film, as well as theorize about its meaning. It's
not that I disagree, particularly, with the other (positive) reviews,
it's just that I might have a different take on it.
After I watched this I thought about what I had seen. It occurred to me that all of the secondary characters--the funeral director, the undertakers, etc.--came off as utterly real, almost as if in a documentary. Granted the behavior of the funeral director is shocking to my American Midwest cultural bias. But I can well imagine even that scenario as something real in a poor Russian community in 1990.
What didn't add up for me, initially, was the behavior of the son. He didn't seem like a real character to me, until I thought about it for a while. He seems overwhelmed by his father's death. We see him overwhelmed by the minutia of burial details, but he is also clearly overwhelmed by the death. When the funeral director asks for socks for the corpse, he has no idea where they might be, and in his own father's home. (I lived in a different city than my father, but I knew where he kept his socks.) This incident, as well as others which demonstrate his unfamiliarity with his father's daily life, indicate to me that he did not have an intimate relationship with his father.
We know that the father was quarrelsome; he had a military career but, evidently, no military benefits/associations because he had quarreled with, presumably, his comrades or his superiors. Perhaps the father and son had argued and become distant. If not, a military career often takes a man away from home; that would be another reason why the son might not have been close to his father.
We certainly don't have any sense that he loved his father. What we see, it seems to me, is regret, and, perhaps, distaste for the way his father lived. I believe what we are seeing here is a story of a man who had a far from ideal relationship with his father. He is attempting to evaluate and assess their relationship. But he is as clumsy doing that as he is dealing with the business and bureaucracy of death.
I see each scene in the film as metaphors for different aspects of their relationship. Emotionally empty, distaste, confusion, quarrelsome, embalmed (static), and, finally, awkward.
You cannot say Sokurov lacks vision. Whether or not you share that
vision is another matter.
A son returns to a bleak Siberian town to organise his father's funeral. The father seems to have died alone, friendless, and in poverty. His skeletal remains suggest malnutrition, but the mound of cigarette butts in the ashtray hint it was self-inflicted. The son's emotional response to this situation would best be described as dazed and confused.
Long, ponderous takes predominate, the son stares off into space for interminably long periods, various characters both menacing and comic flit in and out to flesh out the absurdist premise. It is as bleak, excoriating, grey and depressing as all the commentators have indicated. It also alienates its audience and fails to engage emotionally. The so-called comic moments, especially the brutish undertaker and her shouted threats and violence, are stilted and embarrassing (and not in a deliberate sense - this is not the comedy of embarrassment). Cinematography lacks any coherent sense of purpose. The son's feelings about his father's demise, and a sense of his life off-screen are completely denuded from the narrative. The burial arrangements of a man are relayed in fractured, episodic moments that neither inform or move us.
The audience I watched it with at BFI Southbank in London had one collective emotional response to this - relief, when it was finished. A turgid and inaccessible film.
A friend once told me that an art-house independent film ran in a
cinema when- upon the closing of the film - audiences were so enraged
they preceded to tear up the cinema seats. Of course, my imagination
ran amok, trying to conjure up the contents of such a piece of work.
Well,now my imagination can be put to rest.
I am a lifelong Andrei Tarkovky fan and an ardent admirer of his work. I have come across many people who thought Tarkovsky's films are slow-moving and inert. Opinions being what they are, I found this not to be true of the late director's wonderful works, which are wrought with meaning, beautiful compositions, and complex philosophical questions. Upon hearing Aleksandr Sokurov called the heir to Tarkovsky, I was excited to experience his films.
With the exception of the open air ride through the fields (Stalker), this movie has no kinship to anything Tarkovsky has done. It does not seem to possess the slightest meaning, even on a completely mindless level. It's supposedly "gorgeously stark" cinematography is devoid of any compositional craft. There is a no balance, no proportion, and the exposure meter seems to be running low on batteries in the freezing snow. The main character is so inept and indecisive, it makes you wonder whether his father might have been alive if he made up his mind sooner.
I am also not adverse to non-plots or story lines that progress on multiple non-linear fashion. But there isn't even a non-story here. One must surely enter the viewing of this film with a shaved head if one were to exit it with nothing gained and nothing lost, as hair-pulling would be the only possible answer to a pace that could make a Tarkosky time sculpture look as if Jerry Bruckheimer had filmed a Charlie Chaplin short.
I won't rule out that this may be one of Sokurov's stinkers (Tarkovsky's Solaris), but to conclude that he is one of Tarkovsky's heir-based on this film- would be to call Paris Hilton the successor to Aristotle. C'mon guys, don't be afraid to say it. No amount of big impressive words is going to magically bring this corpse of celluloid back to life. I don't profess to fully understand Russian culture and I probably don't have Russian values, but I immediately picked up on Tarkovsky's work as something magical, a treasure and a gift to viewers.
If it didn't have Sokurov's name on it, and it aired on say, Saturday Night Live, I'm pretty sure nobody would "read" all these magnificent analysis into this wet noodle of a flick.
"gorgeously shot," "profound," whatever.
This movie was funny in awkward moments, and the lincoln center crowd I went to laughed at none of it. It's weirdly funny, because the humor doesn't escape the everpresent corpse. If you're up there with the guy the movie's about, or if you've had a wedgie since the movie started, I could imagine you wearing a sour face or a jaded stare. In the moments were the story felt completely impersonal to me, that's when I found it hilarious.
I like this movie "for the wrong reasons." Yet they are the rights ones for me.
I'm actually watching this film as I write this . . . If the following
comments "prove my lack of development as a true, artistic film maker",
then so be it . . .
But . . . I thought (am still thinking as I'm presently viewing) that this film . . . to put it mildly, is very, very overrated. Again, very.
It looks like a really, really bad student film done by a someone with beyond extremely limited resources . . . and who didn't pay that much attention to detail.
I don't want to go on and on regarding all the different ways that I find this film lacking, but . . . well . . . I just don't get it (rememeber, I fully admit that maybe it's ME that's the idiot here - not the film maker - for not getting this "piece of imaginative genius") . . . I rented this on a whim because the reviews were very, very outstanding . . .
Sheesh . . .
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