Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Depth Review: Ivan The Terrible

Ivan The Terrible part 1 (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) and Ivan The Terrible part 2: The Boyars Plot (1958, Sergei Eisenstein)

In 1944 Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein released the first chapter of the never completed trilogy which followed the exploits and personal tribulations of Ivan Vasilyevich, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible. Critics, movie goers and, more crucially, the state enjoyed it tremendously. In 1946 Eisenstein’s followup, The Boyars Plot, was ill received by the state, at that time still under the authoritarian rule of Joseph Stalin, and therefore banned. Ivan’s cinematic portrayal in the sequel was deemed to resemble too closely the Soviet administration at the time, and saw the film as a thinly veiled criticism of Stalin’s regime. It was only in 1958, five years following the leader’s death, that Russians were rewarded for their patience. Director Eisenstein passed away before completing the final episode in the trilogy. To make matters worse, much of what had been filmed was destroyed by the state, although a little bit of footage can be found on the Criterion Edition of the film.

Of interest perhaps: Ivan Grozny (might and power), more properly translated to modern English becomes Ivan the Awesome. How awesome is the movie though?

Before viewing the film I took it upon myself to read on the subject for some personal knowledge so I could familiarize myself with the story going in. This did in fact make the viewing a smooth experience and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, when certain characters, peoples and events were mentioned, I knew what everyone was talking about. Secondly, I understood the focus of the movie. When telling as expansive a tale as Ivan’s, the filmmakers will undoubtedly concentrate on certain events of the man’s life more so than with others. The films that make up Ivan the Terrible are a presentation of the man as a leader stuck in a rut. He himself is a self aggrandizing and evidently paranoid, but it doesn’t help that he become Russia’s first tsar of Moscovy (the name given to the Russian empire at the time. I won’t go into historical details) when the country’s upper class/aristocracy, known as the boyars, were intent on preserving their influence in state decisions. The viewer is of course encouraged to know already what the situation was between Ivan’s father and mother and the boyars before he rose to power. That’s not to say that one can’t understand anything without prior knowledge, but it makes the viewing experience complete and satisfying to a certain extent. At its core, the films are concentrating on Ivan's relations with his friends and foes and less with conquests and political reform, even though the latter two are mentioned and seen on occasion.

This three hour film depicts the constant and shifting rivalries that threaten Ivan’s throne. The rivalry with boyars is a constant one. But other relationships, that at one time were healthy, such as with the Prince Kurbsky who eventually defects to Poland once Ivan has begun his expansionist mission to the West (although a certain tension came into being once Ivan married the beautiful Anastasia, whom Kurbsky adored from afar), turn sour. This is where my reading becomes a double edged sword however. Certain events as shown in the film appear as rather accurate. Most notable is the Russian conquering of Kazan (one of Ivan’s first expansionist missions). Another is when Ivan, now terribly ill and fearing death, commands the boyars to pledge themselves to Ivan Ivanovich, his infant son. They of course refuse, which, along with the death and presumed murder of his wife, prompts Ivan the Terrible to associate himself more closely with the commoners in the creation of a paramilitary force named the Oprichnina, who went on to terrorize the land more than anything else. In other instances, I was disappointed with certain omissions. There wasn’t a whole lot about the Oprichnina in the film. The film shows a scene in which thousands of commoners pledge themselves to Ivan (the scene is very well shot by the way), but little is heard or seen about the this paramilitary force afterwards. In fact, at one point a character pleads to Ivan that the Oprichnini must be disbanded, but if I’m not mistaken that’s actually the fist time in the film the name of the force is mentioned. A viewer would therefore be forgiven for asking what exactly the characters are talking about.

Another stranger decision, was to take the historical figure of Feodor 1, Ivan’s seemingly retarded son, and make him his cousin for the film. It’s not that the decision doesn’t work for the film, only that I couldn’t figure out why (perhaps the fear that the public would not want to see one of their historical leaders with a handicapped son? I don’t know…). Despite my research, I couldn’t find anything on a Efrosinia Staritska, who is Ivan’s evil aunt in the film and plots to have him overthrown. She has the retarded son in the story, not Ivan. I suppose certain decision were made given the political climate in Russia at the time which heavily dictated censorship, but for some historical buffs these may be annoyances. Then again, they may find the changes all the more interesting. I’ll leave the verdict to them.

The acting style is, theatrical to say the least. I don’t want to use the term ‘cartoonish’ since I’ve always considered it, for one reason or another, to be a bit insulting, but there is a particular energy to the acting on display that may be offsetting for some. A lot of characters use the old bulging eyes trick to mark anger, shock, fear, sadness, etc. I can take that every once on a while, but it seemed like everyone’s ‘go to’ trick here. I also found it rather amusing that in Ivan's coronation scene, he has a booming voice that Orsen Wells would have been jealous of, despite that fact that Ivan was only 16 at the time.

Having said that, I thought that Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan was quite convincing. A dictator needs to have something rather grandiose about him after all and Ckerkasov pulls it off nicely. Serafima Birman as Ivan’s nefarious aunt was given a juicy role and certainly injected some ghoulish delight to say the least. The music is terrific. It sets the tone very well and is quite catchy as a matter of fact. I was recognizing certain themes as they returned throughout the film and always welcomed them back.

Arguably what struck me the most was the cinematography and the composition of various shots. My knowledge of historic Russian cinema is limited (apart from Andrei Rublev which I saw recently) and therefore I did not know what to expect visually. I was very much surprised to discover a lavish, Hollywood-esque type production. This movie is big, with plenty of costumes, massive sets and even a bloody battle sequence. There were a few shots that truly showcased expert filming at its best. I guess it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, people love big epics.

It’s with mixed feelings that I write this review, but let that not denote that I feel I’ve wasted my time watching Ivan the Terrible. Any opportunity to see cinema from another region of the globe, particularly historical cinema from another region, is one a relish very much. There is a lot to like about the film, and I would invite anyone who enjoys foreign cinema (based on North American tastes) to give this a try. It looks lavish (in a 1944 kind of way) has a great soundtrack and features one of history’s most controversial figures as its central character. Just don’t expect a history lesson.

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