Pavel Lungin / Russia / 2009 / 116 min
Monarchs and turbulent priests never seem to be able to rub along together, either in history or fiction. In this case it’s the fictionalised story of the all too real and all too monstrous Ivan the Terrible whose brutality and persecution is challenged by his old childhood friend Filipp who he appoints as Metropolitan of Moscow – the Russian Orthodox equivalent of the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury.
Russia in the 1560s: a place of war, turbulence and disease. A perfect breeding ground for the end of days madness that drives Tsar Ivan to scourge his country, backed by his brutal secret police the Oprichniki. In search of someone who he can trust, someone who will talk to him as a man rather than Tsar, he appoints Fillip to the highest role in the Orthodox Church, and as they say, be careful what you wish for.
From the moment of this appointment, Fillip becomes a counterweight to the insanity and cruelty of Ivan’s court – a situation that lead inevitably to a brutal clash. Russian rock star Pyotr Mamonov makes for a superb, eye-rollingly insane Ivan with a performance that wouldn’t be amiss in a Ken Russell movie, which this film very much resembles; and the quiet dignity of the late Oleg Yankovskiy’s provides the perfect contrast.
There’s an attempt to do too much here however: a low budget historical epic, a Christian allegory and a satire on the current state of Russia – with Ivan acting as an occasionally heavy-handed avatar for Vladimir Putin. All this is stitched together to make a not-so-satisfying whole and were it not for the central performances and the willingness of director Pavel Lungin to wade knee-deep in the visceral, this film would drag through its two-hour running time.
More than just a curiosity piece, but less than a satisfying slice of storytelling, the extraordinary, hypnotic, nightmarish vision of a world where all reason has vanished does draw you in and there’s just enough actual plot to keep you engaged. However, in the end, Tsar leaves you bewildered and if you’ve been lucky enough to have seen Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible then you can’t see anything that Lungin’s film adds.
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