Sunday, March 7, 2010

Quiet Flows the Don (1957)

I'm going to continue on a theme and do a mini- marathon of films that are kind of propaganda. Yesterday I posted a review about the founding of the present state in China made by that government. Today I'm going to talk about a huge monster of a film called Quiet Flows the Don. Based upon a novel by Mikhail Sholokohv its a film about the founding of the Soviet State as seen through the eyes of one man and the woman he loves.

I find it interesting that even though the people loved the book that the film was based on, the Soviet government was not too keen on it or the writer and he he had to constantly defend himself and his work to the authorities (the book was originally published in parts). He effectively had to assure them that in the end it will all be okay. Clearly the eventually relented since they made a version of the story in 1930 before they went forward on this version which was released in three parts in 1957.

This is a long film, its almost six hours long. Its a real Russian epic about Grigori Melekhov and the course of his life over the ten years from 1912 to 1922. Dealing with not only his personal life but the life of his town as the First World War, the Soviet Revolution, the civil war that followed and their aftermath impact on everyone living in Russia, and in particular in his Cossack town on the Don River. The story begins as Grigori starts an affair with the married Aksiniya, who's husband is away with the rest of Cossacks. Its an affair that is far from secret and who's fall out will affect everyone for years to come, it is also the center of the story which shifts gears as Grigori tries to find his place in the world, in the Czarist army, in the Red Army and even with the Whites.

Think of this as movie as immersion tank. This is a movie that picks you up and drops you into a particular time and place and keeps you there for its entire running time. Told, at times, through a series of five or ten minute scenes that move the plot along through time this is in episodic tale that doesn't feel as such. Its clear from each scene whats transpired in the interim and there is no need for explanations. Occasionally jumps in time and place are filled in by a title over the establishing shot. The film puts the viewer into the towns, homes and battlefields where the story transpires in a way that few films ever have. Its beautiful to look at with every shot worthy of being hung on the wall. This is a movie for those who want to sit and disappear into some place far away from today's world.

As a technical achievement the film is amazing, it looks great, the acting is wonderful, the music first rate. The movie, for the most part, hooks you and drags you along through its decade long story. Lets face it almost no film has ever tried to tell a story this big with out cutting it up into little pieces and it losing something (Consider that the original release of this film in the west was cut by almost four hours for release). Its amazing to see what the film makers have done.

On the level of entertainment I'm of mixed emotions. On some levels this is very much an epic soap opera, the film is ultimately concerned with who loves whom, who is cheating on whom, and all of the emotions that are so ingrained in human nature. Certainly this is not your typical romance, not only does the film have other things on its mind, but there is also a ten year arc to consider, ten years where the course of a country and the world was forever altered.

And that's part of the problem for me. The film, which is broken into three parts, has almost three different feels and focuses. The first is the romances and its almost a self contained film about the various players trying to find love. The second part of the film concerns the First World War and the halcyon days of the early revolution, here there is a great deal of political discussion and it makes the already slow pace of the film seem even slower. The last part of the film concerns the revolution and the civil war that followed. Here we have a blending of politics and humanity and it makes for odd an odd mix as emotion crashes against propaganda. While I was happy to follow along I was also wondering if the film hadn't lost its way.

Do I like the film? Yes. I don't love it. I can honestly say that while it is a great achievement (its possibly one the greatest films ever made) I think that its not going to be everyone's cup of tea. There is something the film that seems to be very rooted in the Russian experience, and in particular the experience of those that lived through or were affected by the time period covered in the story. The film is also deliberately paced which many people will take a slow and feel is the kiss of death (especially at five plus hours). I understand that but would argue with out the pacing you wouldn't really feel like you're in the place where the story is happening. And the soap opera nature of the events will also weed out some who want "real" life. I didn't mind it and just let the film do what its going to do.

Is the film worth seeing? Yes, if you're willing to give yourself over to it, perhaps on three nights. The thought of ever sitting down and trying to watch this is a single sitting scares me. I only did it the first time through because I was very sick and knew I wasn't going to leave my bed. It was a nice idea to do because it forced me through the story but at the same time I was overwhelmed. There is simply way too much to take in.

I am haunted by this film. There is something awe inspiring about the film, about the shear scope of the film that has hung with me since I first saw it three years ago (almost to the day). There is something about the humanity that is infused in the film, something about the romance and the people that stays with you and keeps you going even as the political nonsense threatens to make you want to stop watching. As I said above it is arguably one of the great films of all time, even if it strikes me as up and down entertainment.

The best thing I can say about the film is try it. The film is out on video in the US and elsewhere and should be had from Amazon or Netflix or where ever. The Kino DVD is excellent. Its a version of the Ruscico (the official distributor of most films Russian) release with the film on three discs and a fourth disc of extras.

Go with it and give yourself over to it. If you click with it I'm almost certain that for the period its running you'll be in a little Cossack town somewhere along the Don.

(Two things for the record. First the above is an expanded review of the one I posted on LJ and IMDB. Secondly the story was remade yet again by Sergei Bondarchuk, who made the definitive version of War and Peace. His version was hot in the 1990's before his death and then got tied up in legal wrangling for over 12 years.)

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