Friday, January 8, 2010

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (made 1946; released 1958), Sergei Eisenstein, with Nikolai Cherkassov

I saw the first film of this opus in college two decades ago and was deeply impressed by the visual design but was unable to accept the eye-rolling histrionics. That’s why it’s taken me so long to watch the second part; in fact, I’ve dreaded it. But curiosity finally won out. Clearly I was ready for it this time because …Part II is balls-on fun, much livelier than I remember part one being. The plot is simplistic to the max, but there’s something mysterious about the whole thing: the dire death plotting and power plays conducted in such close quarters — close to the vest yet obvious to all, and all players oblivious to the larger world outside. Apart from the fancy baubles and raiments this crew could just as well be wielding knotty clubs and grunting in a cave. Appropriately, the whole feel is cavernous. In Eisenstein, every shot and movement counts, so the eye is always engaged. What has happened to me as a filmgoer in the intervening years since seeing …Part I is my acceptance of flamboyance and camp in the cinema: a more thoroughgoing appreciation for the likes of Sternberg and Sirk and their spawn. After awhile, the heightened movements and bellowing seem normal. And, who knows, this might very well have been the way that self-important nobles in Russia acted in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I viewed a poor quality videotape with the much-vaunted Agfacolor banquet scene — a wild and manic delight — rendered in black and white, giving the scene an unintentionally eerie quality that washes out lines and details and darkens all but the most prominent whites (in ensuing days I was able to see the scene in proper color). The scene, in which the Boyars’ plot is revealed by the Tsar’s weak-kneed nephew, bursts with crazy Russian mania and the way in which Ivan turns the tables on his would-be assassins is hilarious. And anything that was banned by Stalin for being too much a reflection on his own modus operandi has to be worth a look. Grade: B

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