Friday, September 27, 2013

Zvenigora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1928)

So avant-garde in its narrative structure it is almost incomprehensible, and yet Zvenigora is still impressive. The cinematography is adventurous and strong, lots of montage and quick cutting and then long shots of men on horseback. A thread runs through the fragmented story: an ancient Ukrainian grandfather who is concerned with protecting his country’s hidden treasure--what exactly the treasure might be is never very clear--over a vast extent of time and against a variety of would-be treasure-hunters, invading Poles, ancient Vikings (who cursed the treasure and the beauteous Oksana, who in some way that also isn’t very clear at all first welcomed and then dispatched the invaders), and Cossack bandits. Or are the bandits on the right side? And then invading Germans, and the expatriate aristocrats after the Revolution.
Ultimately it becomes clear that the real treasure is the people, the land, and the traditions of Ukraine, a lesson the Grandfather himself only learns after he attempts to blow up a Red train at the behest of a cynical and machiavellian Ukranian “Duke.” To his surprise, the old man is taken in and fed by the hearty Red workers and soldiers. Along the way we see both outright propaganda and warm, visual celebration of Dovshenko's treasure, the faces of the people, soldiers shaking hands with enemy soldiers who (apparently) are brother workers, and refusing to execute their brave companions. In contrast, we see the decadent sensation-craving bourgeois of the west, at its nadir a nasty crowd clamouring to witness a staged suicide. We see fields and forests, grain, factories, trains, bulldozers, and people working hard for their nation. The movie is rough and puzzling and xenophobic, and still it's sometimes beautiful.