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Hard to Be a God
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by Jay Seaver

"Ugly but beautiful Russian fantasy."
4 stars

"Hard to Be a God" may deserve your ten bucks just for the sheer level of will and effort it took to get made, with decades of working on the script, six years of filming, and another seven of post-production, during which time filmmaker Aleksey German passed away, leaving his similarly talented wife and son to complete it. Appreciate that, because the film itself is an endurance test - impressive but decidedly not for everybody's taste.

The premise of the film and the novel by Arkadiy & Boris Strugatskiy that it is based upon sounds like an episode of Star Trek - a group of scientists have arrived on a world that is much like Earth, except that it is stuck in the middle ages, never having experienced the Renaissance. A group of thirty scientists have been observing for a while, but are under orders not to interfere with its development. One, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), hs been there some time, posing as the bastard offspring of a noble and a local god. He has been given the job of rescuing an intellectual by the name of Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) from warlord Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), but getting there is apparently far from a straight line.

Indeed, it's a long, meandering one; the film runs nearly three hours and the story as such doesn't really kick into gear until some time after the two-hour mark. Until then, it's a lot of getting to know the world and Rumata's place in it, and that's a tough, tough slog. German does not shrink from how ugly the equivalent time period was on Earth or Arkanor, with the latter planet apparently being made almost entirely of mud just as a start. That isn't quite grimy enough for German, of course, so he makes sure that it gets mixed with blood, pus, snot, excrement (animal and human), and any other nasty material one can come up with as it sticks to Rumata, and that's just the obvious gross-out material. The people are uncouth and barbaric, cringing as Rumata plays jazz on his flute, burning any writing almost by reflex, and just as really visiting violence and degradation upon each other. There is some discussion of competing factions - "blacks" and "grays" - but who can tell any difference based upon how they act?

The long gestation time makes this tremendously cynical point of view interesting; German started work on the film in the Soviet Union but shot it in the Czech Republic some time after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and judging from how he depicts life on Arkanor, the Enlightenment must be considered a minor miracle. Leaders clamp down on any attempt at education to the point where the people internalize it, while the intellectuals themselves only seem interested in theory. Rumata may not act like the monsters around him, but he shows little love or sympathy for the peasantry. The elite here, whether native-born or visiting, are like such people anywhere, invested in systems and more willing to allow chaos and suffering for those below them than to compromise their economic and political beliefs.

Leonid Yarmolnik is charged with embodying what are, at times, fairly contradictory attitudes as Rumata, and he does so in extremely impressive fashion. Although the camera may at times wander from him, German's fondness for long tracking shots means he's never far off, connecting the whole thing. Interestingly, he seldom plays Rumata as having a particularly chirps virtuous perch to look down on the locals from; instead, he gives the impression that the man has been on Arkanor for a while, and while he has perhaps not quite gone native, he's grown used to how the place works. Maybe he even enjoys being thought of as a demigod. Yarmolnik does a wonderful job of capturing how the spiritual muck that matches all of the physical crud has stuck to this man, and he knows it. There's ever-increasing weariness and despair to match the dark pleasure of being in a place where acting on your baser impulses is necessary so as to avoid suspicion.

Yarmolnik's performance is terrific, but it's not the only reason that a 170-minute film long on ugliness and short on story turns out to be surprisingly compelling. I mentioned the camera that wanders around the general area, though generally sticking around Rumata, and it's virtuoso work. German used two directors of photography over the intermittent shoot (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko), both shooting in beautiful black and white, capturing every grotesque detail and letting the darkest and bloodiest be black stains on the screen. In an unusual choice, German allows the camera to be offscreen but visible, suggesting that some other Earthling is following Rumata around and filming him. Rumata and other characters will occasionally break the fourth wall, talking not to the audience but this chronicler, and is not uncommon for someone passing through a crowd scene to turn and look straight at the camera with curiosity or concern.

Those scenes are also pretty amazing, whether filed with crowds or just a nimble camera. This is the sort of movie where a viewer will settle in, seeing the monochrome stock and the lack of visual effects that normally reinforce a science-fictional premise, and write it off as a small production until the camera pulls back and the size and complexity of the village(s) that German's crew built is revealed. This is a stunningly detailed movie, crowded with props and costumes and extras that make its world horrifyingly easy to grasp even if narration is brief and explanation is limited. That production took so long is utterly believable, because they had to make all that misery.

I don't know how appealing that makes "Hard to Be a God" sound, and I kind of hope that I've dissuaded some people from seeing it; your ticket or rental means you're in for a long evening of nastiness. Your admiration may be begrudgingly rather than enthusiastic. On the other hand, that enthusiasm is not unlikely. This film is a heck of a thing to see and process, and it can't hurt to stretch in that direction.

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originally posted: 03/17/15 10:01:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 30-Jun-2015



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