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Master and Margarita (1994) is based on the eponymous book by Mikhail A. Bulgakov. The film is set in the 1930s Moscow under Stalin and in Jerusalem under Pilate, and has several story-lines that are intertwined. Master (Rakov) is a talented writer in Moscow working on a manuscript about the biblical Jesus (Burlyayev) and Pontius Pilate (Ulyanov). Authorities in Moscow are harassing Master by surveillance and intimidation. Victimized by their harassment, Master throws his manuscript into the fire, before he is locked up in a mental clinic. His assistant and Muse Margarita (Vertinskaya) uses the supernatural powers of Woland (Gaft), trying to help Master. The character of Master is thought to be autobiographical, burning of his manuscript alludes to what Bulgakov himself did under threats from Soviet authorities. Written by
In 1994 director Yuri Kara adapted The Master and Margarita for screen. His film was the most expensive post-Soviet production. High inflation and an unstable rubble made the costs go sky-high for the production company TAMP - up to 15 million dollar.. When the movie was ready producers Arsen Adamyan, Irena Mineeva, Aleksander Mishin and Vladimir Skory decided not to release it. Vladimir Skory said that Yuri Kara's director's cut was unacceptable. The soundtrack recorded by Alfred Schnittke was released on CD.
The cast was impressive: it consisted of very famous Russian actors like Anastasia Vertinskaya (Margarita), Valentin Gaft (Woland), Mikhail Ulyanov (Pontius Pilate), Nikolai Burlyaev (Yeshua), Leo Durov (Matthew Levi). In 2005 a limited number of Moscovites could see the movie on a private session at the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF). One of the happy few was journalist Valeriy Kitshin of the Rossyskaya Gazeta. He was so impressed that he wanted to make efforts to have it released, and he contacted the producers.
In November 2006 Kitshin published an interview with all concerned. Conclusion: the producers and Kara are coming closer to each other, but a new troublemaker showed up in the person of Sergey Shilovsky. This grandson of Bulgakov's third wife Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya now claims, as self-assigned heir, the rights on Bulgakov's literary inheritance. He says that TAMP has the time until mid-2007 to show a lot of money. If they don't, he will sell the rights to another interested party which he keeps in reserve.
Meanwhile are circulating some DVD's of good quality among the Muscovite Bulgakov die-hards, and I'm very happy that I now belong to the inner circle - probably as one of the very few non-Russians - who have seen the movie.
And... is it a good film? Two years ago I would have undoubtedly answered "yes" to this question. But meanwhile we got, of course, the TV series by Vladimir Bortko which made this answer less obvious.
There are moments that Kara comes at Bortko's level, although he could obviously not compete with the technological developments of which Bortko could dispose eleven years later. I'm not going to try to compare the actors of both movies. I only want to say that Viktor Pavlov performs quite well and delivers a plausible Behemoth, which is better than what Bortko did, but also that Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Margarita falls a little short of expectations - she's not performing badly, but Anna Kovalchuk from Bortko's series will probably remain my all time favourite Margarita. And Aleksandr Filippenko, who plays in both movies, is, frankly speaking, better as Azazello in Bortko's series, than as Koroviev in Yuri Kara's adaptation.
Purists of the novel will probably comment that Yuri Kara did not include all passages of the book in his film. And indeed we are missing, for instance, the singing staff of the affiliate of the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type in Vagankovsky Lane performing - in their mass hypnosis - their version of Glorious sea, sacred Baikal. But Kara needed to condense the story - he made a 204 minutes film, which is rather long for a movie picture, although less than half of the 500 minutes which Bortko had available.
However, within the allotted time Kara could have made his movie more balanced. Some scene transmissions were made too fast so that spectators who don't know the novel don't understand, for instance, why Ivan, after his dive in the Moskow river, is all of the sudden flaunting in the streets of Moscow in his underwear. Other scenes are much too long, like the dance to the strains of Hallelujah in the Griboedov house which seems to come straight from a Hollywood musical which also goes for the dance of Margarita with the rusalki and the dance of the guests at Satan's ball.
Another minus is for the music score. In spite of the fact that the score was left in care of Alfred Schnittke - who died meanwhile -, Kara also uses well-known classical pieces, but not always in a judicious, sometimes even irritating way The whole ball of Woland, for instance, is accompanied by Maurice Ravel's Bolero. As such a rather nice and quite exciting piece of music, but when it is badly played and long-drawn-out, it can be quite irritating.
After all the acting in the movie is all right, sometimes a little theatrically, and I enjoyed the watching. But maybe this is partly due to the fact that I'm probably one of the few "foreigners" who could see it. Hm... I just got a nice idea for a summer evening in Leuven: a private screening, for a selected audience, with shashlik on the barbecue and Abrau-Durso in the fridge
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