Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Hard To Be A God

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Aleksei German's "Hard to Be a God" may be the type of film that I admire more than love, but admire it I do. The film is my introduction to the Russian director, who is, perhaps, the biggest gap in my viewing history and, in all probability, the most respected but unseen filmmaker by U.S. audiences - especially now that Bela Tarr's films have long been readily available here.

"Hard to Be a God" is the director's final film. He died last year at age 74 and it is said that he began constructing this picture in his head as far back as the 1960s. Between then and recent years, he became a favorite of critics with films such as "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" and "Khrustalyov, My Car!"

His final film is of the type that has to be seen to be believed. On the one hand, its three-hour running time occasionally becomes a bit of a slog, but it's never anything less than a visually stunning one.

Based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatskiy, "God" is set on the planet Arkanar, which is a smaller sister planet to Earth that is inhabited by humans and in the midst of its own Middle Ages. A group of scientists are sent to the planet to help the inhabitants get onto the right course and we get a virtual tour of the place courtesy of Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik).

Rumata, one of the scientists, has been told not to get involved in the planet's political or historical development, but the natives have come to consider him a god. Most of the film follows him as he winds his way through the mud, shit, torrential rainstorms, strewn corpses, scenes of sex and violence and poverty of Arkanar.

The film's most impressive feat is its long takes of Rumata strolling through the frantic day-to-day life of Arkanar's inhabitants as well as the incredible sets, stunning cinematography and brilliant choreography as numerous scenes unfold in the middle of long, unbroken shots.

There's not much in the way of story here, which is fine, although the endless sequences of Don Rumata physically assaulting the natives and drinking in a slovenly manner - not to mention the barrage of toothless, mud spattered Arkanar denizens spitting, farting, shouting, pissing, gorging or assaulting each other - finally begins to wear one down.

If it's often difficult to find much narratively or thematically to cling to in "Hard to Be a God," it's equally easy to be in awe of its overwhelming staging and visuals. In a sense, the entire three hours of the film feels similar to the immense hospital raid toward the end of Tarr's remarkable "Werckmeister Harmonies," a stunning work of hypnotic cinema that you should seek out immediately.

I look forward to viewing more of German's films - hopefully, in the near future. And while my first foray into his work wasn't exactly the type of film you love, it's worth a look and could certainly be called an achievement. I think it's safe to say that you won't find anything else like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment