My wife, a great video fan, largely selects our programming from among DirecTV (soon to be shed due to high cost and emerging streaming alternatives), Netflix and Prime Video. For years, BBC has been a go-to source, usually via Prime. Alas, she is someone who usually multi-tasks with her laptop while watching TV, which has ruled out watching foreign language videos with English subtitles. Until about a week ago…
…when she discovered several Russian language video series, which came as an enormous surprise. Each consists of 8 – 10 episodes of around 50 minutes. First came Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. Then we watched Rasputin. We are now into Sophia – the story Sophia Palaiologina, daughter of the brother of the last Byzantine emperor, who had been defeated by Ottoman Turks. Sophia was taken under Papal protection to Rome, where she was raised (ostensibly Catholic despite her having been Eastern Orthodox as a young child) and later offered by Pope Sixtus IV in marriage to Ivan III of Muscovy. This was a cynical attempt to capture the Orthodox Prince to Roman Catholicism, and much intrigue is on display in several dimensions.
All of which is outside the impressions I want to share here. When critiquing literature, we are used to reading “between the lines” as to the author and his/her times and culture. Here, I want to inquire as to the validity of searching “between the frames,” so to speak, of this near-infinite series of still images which combine through the human brain’s fortunate perceptual error, into often-stunning moving images. And they are indeed ‘moving’ in both senses of that word. What, then, can be inferred about the film’s creators and the country in which such movies are produced?
These are not your father’s Russian (or particularly Soviet) movies, and I found myself needing to challenge my own biases (starting while I was still watching) when reflecting upon what these truly excellent productions imply about modern Russia. Had these videos emerged from my TV in English, I would have taken them for top-notch Hollywood productions, lacking only the coarse language, gratuitous nudity/sex, and wall-to-wall decadence. A certain forthrightness and innocence characteristic of pre-modern American filmmaking pervades these productions. They come from a place of quiet restraint and decency; they show nothing but respect for the majority Orthodox faith.
Technically, every component of film I can identify is extremely well-done. The story lines are credible and engaging, the characters, similarly, exude depth and texture written in screenplay fashion which is altogether polished, believable and professional. The settings are often breathtaking – some in recognizable lush historical places and buildings – all perfectly restored. More rustic scenes show structures appropriate for the times. Costumes and implements (like weapons) in every one of these productions are unusually magnificent; fabrics are especially prominent and sumptuous.
The acting – across the board – is nothing short of superb, award-winning in its own right (and not even slightly dependent upon the actors’ having displayed the de rigeur political views du jour). The actress portraying Catherine the Great, Marina Aleksandrova was particularly striking and effective (although I cannot rule out some testosterone-weighted impression of her [pardon me while I catch my breath]). Other characters, even those evoking no humoral response in this writer, from major to minor, are uniformly excellent. The English subtitles are generally very good translations, with a few lapses in the form of modern colloquialisms inappropriate to the period.
These productions invoke in me a strong sense that the creators are intensely interested in showing the history of their nation and a desire to do so honestly, accurately and artfully. I believe it portrays a healthy nationalism – of pride in their nation’s emergence and existence – not superiority over anyone (why is nationalism such a dirty word for progressives?). Production generally appears to have taken place in an affluent country. Nowhere, even around the edges, does one see any shoddiness. Rustic homes of ordinary people appear clean and show real craftsmanship in their construction. Cinematography is just superb and scenes requiring computer graphics are every bit as good as what comes out of Hollywood.
Not usually a movie critic, I am surely leaving out many other identifiable aspects of movie-making which are amenable to description and critique. My overall impression of these films, however, has demolished whatever sense I had of Russia as a place somehow not measuring up to our “elevated” standards. I am not sure my inferences are completely valid, but suffice it to say that my opinion of Russia has markedly improved.
George Will used to say that the Soviet Union couldn’t produce poetry; that it was a third-world country with nuclear weapons. I remain unsure as to whether Vladimir Putin is really the dangerous autocrat our establishment and media insist he is. Seeing between the frames of these films this kind of creativity – which is usually upstream of politics – suggests some important, human, esthetic and ethical things are happening in a country which has only recently made itself able to afford these truly opulent productions. Considering where they came from, Russians have made obvious progress in many dimensions. Though they now even purport to possess hypersonic nuclear weapons, no third-world country can produce the poetry of these magnificent productions.
The opening credits reveal that these films originated from Moskino Productions and, interestingly, state they were supported by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. Could it be they are on to something? Maybe the best defense of a nation is maintenance of a coherent, self-respecting, self-restrained culture which knows and values its own history. By way of contrast, when people ask why I no longer attend Hollywood movies, I tell them I refuse to pay money to go into a dark room only to emerge feeling ashamed to be an American and a member of the human race (oh, how could I forget – now I would also have to be ashamed of my hypo-melaninemia).