A 19th century French aristocrat, notorious for his scathing memoirs about life in Russia, travels through the Russian State Hermitage Museum and encounters historical figures from the last 200+ years.
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I viewed this film in 1994, and feel like I can remember nearly every frame. It is a film I recommend with reservations: I was enthralled, but Cineplex film-goers weaned on THX and kinetic editing may find this Opus about as exciting as watching paint dry.
Sokurov has created an almost wordless visual poem ... compelling, watery dream-like images, with subliminal sounds of half-heard conversations and rushing water leaking in. Orthogonal camera distortion, murky still images, matted backgrounds and miniatures create a world that taps heavily from the universal race consciousness: a heavy dose of deja vu will set in as you "remember" images that nearly every citizen of the western world has experienced in universal dreams and nightmares.
WHISPERING PAGES is based on "images" from 19th Century Russian novels. A scrap of plot, with nameless characters, involves a Dostoyevski-esque tragic hero who's evidently murdered an old woman to collect on her estate. A waif-like heroine, reduced to prostitution, is so ethereal that you suspect she may be a figment of his imagination.
The 77 minutes pass quite slowly, with some camera pans (e.g. from the top to the bottom of a statue) taking nearly five minutes. It's not a bore, though. The alert viewer will catch occasional freezes into a still shot, and a watery drifting in and out of color. The film is a brilliant textbook on camera technique; required viewing for any serious students of world cinema. Your appreciation will increase if you're also a fan of German Silent films. Many of the overhead shots of murky urban miniatures bear a startling resemblance to the workers quarters in METROPOLIS. At times the camera lens is so distorted that the crooked alleyways resemble the twisted sets of CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI. A bureaucrat who administers red-tape surrounding the old woman's estate is identical to the police clerks in CALIGARI. All that's missing are the elevated desks and chairs. Long shots of the hero, in supplication in his cell-like apartment, chill the blood as much as the infamous camera shot receding from the tragic Emil Jannings in THE LAST LAUGH.
WHISPERING PAGES, though, is far from being a silent film; the use of sound is brilliant. Through the film, there is the constant sound of water; running through pipes, rushing by opaque windows, dripping. You can almost "hear" the omnipresent vapors. In a chalky image of birds hovering above the river's surface, we hear the heart-like beat of wings.
The lead actor, Alexander Cherednik, is lanky, and very Christ-like in appearance. Unless you notice that his fingers have mysteriously elongated, several encounters with a distortion lens during his scenes may escape your notice. This film has many searing visual images, that match the greatest moments of German Silent Cinema; for instance, when Cherednik awakens under the monstrous statue of a lioness and sucks on her teat. Camera pointed at ceiling, with severely distorted lenses makes a four-story stairwell appear like something from a medieval miniature; we see nameless characters climbing over the rail, and plunging, in slow motion, into an abyss. Doors open onto plunging shafts. Exterior shots of tenements on the river reveal ladders and stairs that end in mid-air. Much of the imagery is nightmarishly unforgettable.
Experiencing the film is a bit like being in a convincing seance, summoning up images from a the world of the dead. You feel like a time traveler, drifting, ghost-like, in the netherworlds of Russian poverty sometime around the 1830s or 1840s. You'll derive an almost voyeuristic thrill in picking up snatches of conversation that you weren't intended to hear.
If this type of film or subject matter interests you at all, I encourage you to alter your calendar to accommodate it's rare showings. Like the watery, ghost-like images it contains, sadly, this film won't see the light of day for long in our channel-surfing world. Ironically, unlike most current popular films, which evaporate from your memory by the time you get to the parking lot. WHISPERING PAGES leaves indelible images floating before you vision upon waking the next day.
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