10th Belfast Film Festival review
Set in the mid-sixteenth century, Pavel Lungin’s account of the middle period of the reign of Ivan the Terrible delves into a period of Russian history made famous previously by such cinematic forefathers as Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky. If the influence of both films comes to mind, the film never quite measuring up to the visual and compositional innovations of Ivan the Terrible or convincingly tapping into the spiritual and mystical elements of the age, albeit somewhat later, as successfully as Andrei Rublev, perhaps taking a few liberties with historical fact, Tsar nonetheless succeeds in bringing the age, the sensibilities and powerful nature of the struggle that develops between the church and the state on an epic scale with a sense of grim, gritty authenticity that makes it more than worthy of standing alongside the work of Russian cinema’s two greatest masters.
It is in the 1560s under the rule of Ivan IV, Ivan Vasilyevich Grozny, known as Ivan the Terrible, that Russia is struggling under the weight of a war being waged in the West, the country coming under devastating attacks from Polish forces. At the same time, the Tsar is also carrying out a self-destructive internal policy of Oprichnina, murdering nobles and stealing their land through a band of vicious warriors known as the Tsar’s Dogs – horsemen, dressed in black, bearing the severed head of a dog attached to their saddles. Russia having almost been brought to its knees, Ivan (Pyotr Mamonov) is convinced that the Last Judgement is approaching and looks for spiritual guidance, appointing Filipp (Oleg Yankovskiy), the superior of the monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, to be the new Metropolitan archbishop of Moscow.
The two men however do not see eye-to-eye on the respective matters of running the country and ensuring the spiritual salvation of its people. Ivan believes that, as ruler of the land, it is he who is best placed to implement the will of God, and comes to resent the Metropolitan meddling in his affairs, while the Fillip takes it within his authority to oppose the brutal raids undertaken by the Tsar’s Dogs and the increasingly barbaric tortures and executions that are being carried out against his own aristocrats and army commanders. When Filipp tries to intervene to protect a group of generals – one of whom is his nephew – who have failed to defend the strategically important city of Novgorod, advising them not to return to Moscow, the Tsar exacts a terrible vengeance against the men and against the Metropolitan.
Rising to the scale of the historical subject matter, Tsar is a grand scale epic, but remains tightly focussed and character driven. It never loses sight of the two main players, but manages to define their character and place their respective roles extremely well within the overall context of what it means for the destruction or salvation of Russia. Every element of the remarkable production, costume and set design adds to the sense of authenticity for the period and the character, and when set against each other in this epic struggle for dominance the performances of the two principals is absolutely mesmerising, each of them commanding authority in different ways, Ivan becoming increasingly insane under the influence of his court, while Fillip has faith that he has right on his side.
Filmed impressively by Clint Eastwood’s regular cameraman, Tom Stern, the film is rigorously and almost tangibly solid, there never being any trace of digital effects to intrude on the sense of period, the detail being all there in the wood constructions, the fabric of the costumes, the harshness of the hard-set bearded faces and the bitterness of the falling wet snow on the unforgiving landscape. That’s not to say that the director doesn’t find other means of introducing spiritual and emotional undercurrents that reflect the state of mind of the characters, most notably through a jester on the side of the Tsar who gleefully drives Ivan on to ever greater acts of barbarism, and a young girl found abandoned by Fillip after the sacking of a village who symbolises goodness and mercy. Even the bear held captive by Ivan that plays such a grim part in the entertainment of the royal court, could be seen as a personification of Ivan the Terrible himself.
Lungin is stronger on the material than the spiritual, with the latter occurrence of miracles not blending quite so convincingly into the otherwise strictly grimly realist depiction of historical events, but superbly structured and beautifully shot, there are some unforgettable images and impressive scenes as Tsar powerfully builds to its inevitably horrifying conclusion.