Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Last Holy Fool

Soviet Roulette recently described the rise and fall of Gregory Rasputin, as seen through the lens of a documentary film, Land of the Tsars. Today we revisit the theme by describing the creative film, The Agony, finished in 1975 but released much later due to its politically charged themes. Here, in Klimov's excellent film, Rasputin is seen as the mirror image of Nicholas II and his wife. Rasputin, oily and grotesque but simultaneously charismatic and sensual, is a malevolent force who inevitably seeps into the moral and political vacuum of the monarchy in 1916.

This Rasputin is self-serving but slick--labeled a thief by the wise peasants who remember him upon his triumphal return to the countryside--charlatan. As bad as he is, the film makes his appearance and influence seem almost inevitable. The tsar, portrayed at least a few strokes of sympathy, is utterly lost. Striken by his ill son, and weighed down by the memory of the blood he has shed by earlier decisions related to the Lena Strike, the Russo-Japanese War, Father Gapon's march to the czar's palace, the 1905 Revolution, and the especially the First World War, Nicholas II is clearly lost.

God is everywhere in this film, and no where. The royal family prays, church fathers bless soldiers at the front, and holy icons abound--but God's silence is palpable. What is Nicholas II to do? With his army bloodied and his authority in the duma under attack on all sides of the political spectrum, Nicholas increasingly needs a miracle, the kind of miracle that only a strange and disgusting monk, who speaks in tongues and wallows in the mud, seems capable of delivering. Alas--Rasputin takes a bribe that leads him to deliver bad military advice that leads to catastrophe, and the way is clear for an aristocratic coup that leaves Rasputin murdered. The miracle comes--Rasputin survives poisoning and an initial gunshot before being gunned down once more in a grand courtyard--but it's not what the tsar and his wife had in mind.

As an aside, the film comes with a documentary about the director, Klimov, who is responsible for films such as Farewell and Go and See. Klimov, who grew up in the ashes of Stalingrad, eventually rose to become Gorbachev's man to reform the entire Soviet film industry in the age of Glasnost and Perestroika. His official position under Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Film Makers. In this short biographical sketch, one sees the complexity of the end of communism in Russia. On the one hand, Klimov supports reform; on the other, he's clearly the man in charge, or at least the man who will deliver Gorbachev's message about the limits of freedom in the new age of aesthetic experimentation. One interesting note that the Klimov film makes is that it's the first time Nicholas II or Rasputin were actually depicted in Soviet film. It's also at least the seventh time in non-Soviet film history that a film about Russia's last Holy Fool was made.

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