Sunday, September 23, 2012

War and Peace - Russian Resurrection Film Festival

I have just come home from seeing the 1960s Mosfilm War and Peace, all seven or so hours of it, at Cinema Paradiso as part of the Russian Resurrection film festival. I went to see Two Days on Thursday and am planning on Siberia Mon Amour tomorrow, and was going to do a joint blog post of my foray into Russian cinema, but it would be impossible not to dedicate a post to the centrepiece of the festival. The film was made in several parts between 1961 and 1967 partly as a response to King Vidor's 1956 War and Peace. It is an exquisite spectacle, the most expensive Soviet film ever produced (hardly surprising, seeing as it is, in effect, four films).

The battle scenes involved thousands and thousands of extras and the burning of purpose-built villages (and, in all likelihood, the death of several horses). The camerawork is exquisite. There are brilliant panoramas and aerial shots of the countryside - before, during and after destruction. Some scenes end in watery filters, as if the audience were seeing the world through the tears of the protagonists. There is room for whimsy, too: Wikipedia tells me one of the key ball scenes involved a cameraman on rollerskates. It was a joy to watch: heavy-going certainly, an endurance event of the film world, but a screening not to miss.

I wasn't familiar with the story beforehand (I know, I know...), so I'm not sure whether the various love affairs of the characers were meant to feel hollow, but that was my take on them anyway. Ludmila Savelyeva's Natasha was either unconvincing as a tragic romantic heroine, or quite effective as a vapid aristocrat desperate for romance. Indeed, there were bursts of laughter at some of the more sappy scenes, and I did wonder whether this was a reflection of how the performances departed from contemporary cinematic conventions or whether the original audiences would have reacted the same. The various changes of heart Vyacheslav Tikhanov's Prince Andrei goes through are foregrounded more clearly, but he is never a particularly sympathetic or relatable figure. Director Sergei Bondarchuk's Pierre felt the most fleshed-out and credible - up to the point where he, too, falls for the pouty Natasha. I am perhaps being unkind, and there are certanly nuances I would have missed. 

The subtitling of this film was much, much better than that of Two Days (please hire qualified translators!), but there were still moments of confusion particularly in the initial ball scene, where it was not always clear who was speaking. As far as I could gather there were also scenes where some original French dialogue had been dubbed into Russian, which added another layer of complexity to figuring out who was saying what.

There were three intermissions during the film, and we were treated to cabbage pasties in the first break and teas and coffees in the subsequent, shorter breaks. I was quite genuinely surprised at how many people showed up - I don't know the figures, but it looked like well over half the cinema was taken.

Clearly the hardcore film enthusiasts/slavophiles of Perth were out in force for a crazy, indulgent way to spend a Sunday.

Partway through the film snapped, so we had an unscheduled break to allow the projectionist to quickly splice the material back together. We were told that the 35mm film was very fragile, and that we were in the process of watching "soon to be dead" history. The staff at the Paradiso were kind enough to let me see the film reels themselves during the last intermission, so here we go. Ladies and gentlemen: film.

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