Hard to Be a God – Aleksei German (2015)

Hard to Be a God is one of those rare films that defies description. It is nominally sci-fi, adapted from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, but if you don’t pay somewhat careful attention to the opening voice-over, you can be forgiven (if not excused) for not understanding the fantastical underpinnings of the tale. The story, told obliquely, concerns a parcel of scholars sent to an Earth-like planet (picked, we are informed, because it has castles like Earth) to observe and interact with the locals. It is unclear if the scholars are taken as actual gods or simply nobility descended from mythical stock, but they wield power over the populace both because of their titles, and because they are more intelligent and skilled, in most every life task, than the locals. The planet on which they’ve landed appears to be stranded in an Earth-like Medieval period, but unlike on our snug rock, the Renaissance on this planet has happened in reverse; that is, it is in the thrall of a kind of anti-Enlightenment, with knowledge being lost, scholars pilloried and killed, universities sacked. This description does not quite convey the extent of it, though, as the “problems” are more thoroughgoing. It is not simply that this planet is going through a dark era, or a period of iconoclasm; indeed, the denizens of this planet seem to be regressing, or rather, one gets the feeling that this place is slowly tilting off its kilter, spinning backward not only in a historical sense, but in an evolutionary one as well. It is a place of anti-production and anti-consumption. The Dons (as the scholars are called), being stranded here, have been forced to involve themselves in the internecine politics of the planet (which are confusing), and after so long dealing with the locals, have become weary, apathetic, unhinged, or a combination of the three. The focus of the film is one Don Rumata, who seems a pretty decent overlord, but who definitely falls into the weary bordering on apathetic category. (He fights when he has to, prefers not to kill, although he has skills that allow him to wreck havoc if he wants, and opens and closes the film playing his intergalactic saxophone with a resigned ennui). There is not much conventional “action,” but the overall thrust is that the Don has to rescue one worthy, named Budakh, from the “greys,” which leads to out and out destruction.

Visually, the film is stunning. The planet, as much as we see of it, looks like a massive Medieval city, with some bleak marshy countryside for good measure; everything is covered in mud. Well, this is a vast understatement. The film’s environs are by far the gloopiest, poopiest, glopiest, wettest, muckiest you will ever see – the set design and production quality are amazing. This is a planet covered in scat, but not in the John Waters gross-out mode; you get the sense that everything is shit, but you can’t tell the difference between the shit, the mud, and … well, there isn’t much else. Furthermore, the locals are obsessed not only with shit, but with effluvia of every variety. The key sense on this planet is smell, not taste, such that the Don, when offered a mug of something (usually milk?), will take it in his mouth, swish it around, and then spray or spit it out – not from any offensiveness, it seems, but simply because that is how it is done. Everyone is obsessively spitting or clearing their noses by ripping massive goobers this way and that (usually ending stuck to or dripping down their faces), or, with much due fascination, wiping some glob of gloop out of some nether-crack and giving it a nasal once-over, equal parts means of identification and aesthetic judgement. If you are to be randomly killed (and odds are, if you are a local on this planet, you will be), it will likely be by dunk in an overflowing latrine – but such events happen with such equanimity on the part of all participants (victims included) that one gets the sense that it is kind of entertaining too. This is what I mean by describing the populace as devolving. It’s not the right word, as we don’t have evidence they were ever different, but most of them seem dim in the sense that a primate is “dim” – easily distracted, struggling to suppress their id, randomly poking, hitting, throwing dirt, grabbing people by the nose, etc. (In some sense, it does recall the Three Stooges). Their sense of humor is equally deranged. Dead dogs, which abound in the film (usually strung up from small gallows), are used to bonk people over the head, with a Nelson-from-the-Simpsons “ha ha” not uncommon. Outhouses are often on the second floor, and delight is taken (again, seemingly by both parties) in crapping on someone’s face. My attempts at analogy are going a little over the top; the tone is everyday and spot-on anthropological, in that the dwellers of this planet by and large take it all in stride, knowing no different. It’s not a hootenanny, nor a nightmare – just the way things go. They may behave like bird-brains, but there is a nascent innocence to them, and the acting never goes over the top.

Already we are in a strange world. German makes the planet more closeted feeling, smaller, dirtier, cramped, tired and piling up on itself (reflecting the Don’s weariness and the experience of constant repetitive stimulation) by way of his staging and shooting. This film contains what must have been some of the most difficult exercises in blocking and camera movement in film history. The camera moves in a way very similar to the “hysterical” camera of Andrzej Zulawski, but with less sweep, in spaces much more cramped and confined, and within takes that last far longer. We are often very close to people and things, so much the better to scent them, but the scope is epic in that there are constant entrances, exits, and details, details, and more details to sniff in. The film does not do much to help the confused spectator, but the camera, strangely embodied, almost becomes our second self, or at least an equally bewildered friend helping us through. It is a long film, but only because there is so much to see and so little guidance; tiring, but only because the planet is unrelenting and exhausting. The experience of watching the film is the exact opposite, though – the longer it went on (unlike Don Rumata, I would wager), the more I found it funny, fascinating, and inexhaustible.

Four and a half stars out of five

Leviathan – Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

Leviathan has aroused considerable controversy in its native Russia, apparently for portraying local authorities and the church in a light less than glowing; the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky accused Zvyagintsev of playing up problems within Russia in order to win foreign accolades. (The Ministry of Culture co-financed the film, so the criticism might seem odd, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, particularly The Return, brought international praise and comparisons to Tarkovsky, and were not overtly political). That he has won the foreign accolades is not in doubt, as the film tops many “best of” lists from the past year, yet this is hardly a shocking expose. In fact, Western viewers will no doubt see much that is overly familiar in the corruption portrayed in the film (the fact that the film is fairly subtle and does make Russia look like every other capitalist kleptocracy probably counts against it rather than mitigates). The film concerns Nikolai, a somewhat hot-headed auto mechanic and independent businessman in a small Russian town who happens to own a nice piece of property, generations-old, overlooking an inland sea that is drying up (symbolism alert!). The mayor of the town covets the property, and so requisitions it to build a “community center.” The film portrays the blow-back from the Mayor and his cronies as Nikolai tries to fight the acquisition, with the help of an old friend from Moscow, Dmitriy, a well-connected lawyer. I won’t say much more on specifics, since the slow unfolding of Nikolai’s fate pretty much is the film, but needless to say things work against him, and by the end of the film, he finds himself in dire straits.

There is much to like about the film, most significantly in the open-endedness of many of the sequences, which often softly set us up for one type of payoff and deliver something less expected. Likewise, the portrait of a man against the system is not strident, as by the end viewers could see Nikolai’s afflictions as the result of so much bad luck, general bull-headedness, the course of life playing out or as a top-down conspiracy. It is true that the religious figures in the film don’t fare well, ranging from a kind of bleak “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” existentialism to providing full-on corrupt moral cover to political misdeeds of all stripes; even so, one gets the sense that the Job-like struggles of the Russian everyman are, in Zvyagintsev’s view, the natural state of things in Russia. In this, the film follows in a long tradition of Russian pessimism (although this particular tale is mostly punishment without the crime). The film has weak areas: the symbolism, such as the Job connection, explicitly referenced within the film, is heavy-handed at times; the Philip Glass style undulating score is weak and grating (although thankfully saved for the beginning and end). You could argue that it’s overly long. I just didn’t find it any more or less compelling than other “grinding a man down” art films of yore. I must say that I often find Russians unsympathetic and cold anyway, so it wasn’t hard for me to buy into this as another entry in the “same old story” of life sucking in Russia.

Three stars out of five