Monday, 24 February 2014

TARAS BULBA (2009) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sub-Par Russian Version of classic Ukrainian tale of revolt is little more than a pallid made-for-tv-miniseries-styled slab of propaganda that might stir the loins of Putin-lovers-and-apologists, but it doesn’t come close to mining the stirring potential of Gogol's great story.

Taras Bulba (2009) **
dir. Wolodymyr Bortko
Starring: Bohdan Stupka, Ihor Petrenko, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Magdalena Mielcarz, Sergei Dryden

Review By By Greg Klymkiw

In light of the recent events in Ukraine, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to one of the more egregious displays of cinematic propaganda I have seen in a long time. The charge of disinformation is, for once, not levelled against Hollywood, but Russia. This is not the Russia of the butcher Joseph Stalin, but that of contemporary Russia, a country rife with the sad, evil remnants of Stalin in the guise of its leader Vladimir Putin who, in his previous career was a nasty little KGB spy who specialized in rooting out those who opposed the supposed glories of Communism and prior to that, when he, as a teacher and academic, disgracefully used his position to carry out surveillance on students.

The film on view is Taras Bulba, a relatively recent and expensive (by Russian standards) screen adaptation of the legendary Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s great novella of the same name and a film that chooses to use Gogol’s pro-Russian version as its base rather than his original manuscript. Gogol bowed to the will of Czarist Russia and delivered a revised product more in keeping with the country’s own version of Manifest Destiny throughout Eastern Europe.

Propaganda in the cinema is nothing new. In fact, many knee-jerkers will look for any excuse to trash Hollywood for this very thing. Since its very beginnings, a common charge against Uncle Sam’s cinema has been the preponderance of propagandistic elements to extol the virtues of truth, glory and the capitalistic American way in terms of cultural/political superiority and to defend the country’s constant need to engage in warfare. One cannot disagree with this common assertion; however, America ALONE has not propagated the myths of their “superiority” using the most powerful medium of artistic expression – the cinema.

The most common example of this would be the vicious work of Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who utilized cinema to spread anti-Semitism with The Eternal Jew, a foul “documentary” that goes so far as to trace and equate the spread of Judaism with that of rats and the spread of the Black Plague. Of course, no mention of Nazi propaganda would be complete without referring to the work of the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl – a truly great artist who delivered one of the most stunning, yet reviled works of the 20th century, her stirring document of the Nuremburg Rallies, The Triumph of the Will.

Strangely, the work of Russian propagandists has not seen the same kind of vitriolic bile heaped upon it and yet, Sergei Eisenstein, (surely as brilliant a filmmaker as Leni Riefenstahl) was happy enough to wear extremely comfortable knee-pads as he knelt before the dictatorial powers of Russia to continually afford him the opportunities to make movies. Eisenstein delivered one film after another that not only propagated the myth of Communism and the notion of Russian superiority, but eventually even extolled the virtues of an even bigger butcher than Hitler, Joseph Stalin. (For more on this, see my review of the Kino DVD release of Battleship Potemkin by visiting HERE.)

This new version of Taras Bulba received a substantial portion of its financing from the Russian Ministry of Culture and while it may bear the trademarks of typical old-Soviet-style propaganda, it is hardly a work that bears the hallmarks of superior filmmaking. At least Eisenstein, Riefenstahl and any number of American directors who generated similar propaganda (Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan is a good example) are great artists who created landmarks of cinema that expanded the boundaries of the medium. The mediocre, though clearly competent television director Wolodymyr Bortko (who prefers the Russian transliteration “Vladimir” in spite of his Ukrainian heritage) serves up some sumptuous production value, elicits some fine performances and seasons his celluloid broth of borscht with all the clichés of epic cinema, but none of the depth one might find in the work of masters of the elephantine genre like David Lean. Bortko’s screenplay adaptation unimaginatively catalogues, almost by rote, the events of Gogol’s Russified version of the novella, but somehow manages to completely miss the spirit of the original writing.

Telling the classical tale of a Cossack Chief, Taras Bulba (majestically portrayed by the great Ukrainian actor Bohdan Stupka) who sends his beloved sons Andriy (Ihor Petrenko) and Ostap (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to the Polish-ruled university in Ukraine’s capitol city Kyiv to not only get a well rounded education, but to acquaint them with the “enemy”. He eventually takes his sons to the legendary Cossack “Sich” (fortress) of Zaporozhia to train them in the skill of Cossack barbarism.

Bulba’s hatred for Poland flares even more intensely when he learns that his farm has been destroyed and his wife is murdered by the Poles. He manages to get the Cossack nation to march against Poland and soon the Ukrainians are wreaking havoc and decimating their Polish rulers. Things come to a head when Bulba and the Cossacks attack the Ukrainian city of Dubno which is under Polish rule. Unbeknownst to our title character, when Bulba’s most beloved son Andriy was at school in Kyiv, he fell in love with Elzhbeta (the eye-poppingly stunning Magdalena Mielcarz) a member of Polish royalty. As bad luck would have it, her father is now the governor of Dubno and Andriy realizes that he is laying siege to the city of his beloved. Love, it would seem, becomes the ultimate enemy as Andriy betrays his country and father to be with her.

It’s a great story! One of its biggest fans was Ernest Hemingway who proclaimed its genius whenever he could. Too bad, then, that this film version is so by-the-numbers. That said, even a mediocre rendering such as this one is no match for the power of Gogol’s literary prowess and for this we are dealt some tender mercies. Finally though, the movie is a bit of a slog – plodding along its way, but without any of the spark of the original writer. In fact, the tone of the movie is resolutely dour. This is no surprise since screenwriter-director Bortko has chosen to amplify the Russified version of the novella. Without that glorious spark of Gogol’s wonderful sense of boys’ adventure and his delightfully, deliciously and resolutely Ukrainian sense of humour (so beautifully captured in J. Lee Thompson's 1964 Hollywood version), the movie has all the spark of a funeral dirge.

By over-emphasizing the Russification of the original text what we have is a brutal glorification of Russian superiority. This grotesque mockery of a story that, in actuality is a rousing depiction of Ukraine’s never-ending fight for freedom from subjugation leaves us with a very foul taste in our mouths. We are handed one ultra-violent set piece after another – all in the service of boosting Russia’s own notion of might as right. By appropriating this very Ukrainian story by one of its great writers and turning it into grotesque Russian propaganda to try and suggest that the Cossacks and in turn, the Ukrainians, consider themselves little more than barbarians doing the bidding of those who would subjugate, exploit and even perpetrate genocide against them (as Stalin did) is thoroughly reprehensible.

Historically, even the occasional guarded loyalty the Zaporozhian Cossacks paid to the Russian Empire was betrayed by both Czar Peter I and Catherine the Great, the former forcing them to scatter or face death, the latter ordering a full-on genocide of the Zaporozhian Sich. None of this would have been lost on Gogol - especially with his first, but suppressed edition of the novel and even within the Russified version, this healthy distrust of the Empire boils just below the novel's surface.

Bortko’s mediocrity as a director reaches its nadir, however, in his lame handling of the fighting, action and battle scenes which is, in a word, dull. With fabulous locations, thousands of extras and impeccable production and costume design, he cannot direct action. His shooting style is cudgel-like, but it never has the thrilling and freewheeling quality the action needs. Bortko appears to have everything that money can buy – everything that is, except the genuinely distinctive artistic voice that would allow him to rise above his own mediocrity.

I do reiterate, though, that such propagandistic shenanigans would ultimately not be as problematic if this was actually a good movie, but it isn’t. Saddled with a clumsy flashback structure, a lazy use of prose narration from the novel and a dull television-mini-series mise-en-scene, Taras Bulba might stir the loins of Putin-lovers-and-apologists, but it doesn’t come close to mining the stirring potential of the story.

Let’s not forget that Gogol came from Cossack stock and that he was inspired by the very moving Ukrainian nationalist “dumy” (folk ballads) of the Cossacks themselves. Also, one of Hohol/Gogol’s chief literary inspirations was the great Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and that “Taras Bulba” was conceived as a Ukrainian version of those swashbuckling tales of Scottish Highlanders battling their British oppressors/occupiers (especially notable in "Rob Roy"). A cool historical footnote is that Cossacks themselves might have had some roots in Scotland at a much earlier historical juncture. Another interesting correlation between Scott and Gogol is that both portrayed strong, sympathetic Jewish characters in their respective swashbucklers - Scott created Rebecca in "Ivanhoe" and Gogol gave us Yankel in "Taras Bulba". (The latter character seems to fit the fact that Catherine the Great effected a genocide upon the Ukrainian Cossacks whose administrative power was actually presided over by Ukrainian-Jews - all the record-keeping discovered in archeological digs at the Sich was found to be written in Hebrew.)

Not surprisingly, the best film version of Taras Bulba is the fabulous aforementioned J. Lee Thompson epic from Hollywood in the 1960s. It captures the derring-do, the humour and the stirring, romantic nationalism of the story by adhering the book’s Ukrainian roots as opposed to Bortko’s ill-conceived attempt to please Vladimir Putin. The American treatment of the character of Andriy, the son who betrays father and country is far closer, I think to the spirit of what Gogol intended. Ihor Petrenko’s portrayal of Andriy is so dull and serious. It especially lacks the boyish charm that Tony Curtis with his swarthy Hungarian-Jewish looks and magnificent sense of humour brought to the role.

The other idiotic attempt to Russify this story is how Bortko has commissioned a musical score so lacking in any spirit whatsoever. At least in the Hollywood version, legendary composer Franz Waxman based his entire score on traditional Ukrainian music and delivered a score that was cited by even Bernard Herrman as one of the great scores of all time. (For my full review of the Hollywood version, feel free to visit HERE.)

In fairness to Bortko, however, his screenplay, unlike the Hollywood version restores the odd symbiotic friendship from Gogol’s novella between Bulba and the Jewish money lender Yankel (yielding a stellar performance by Sergei Dryden) and, most importantly, he includes the whole aftermath involving the capture, torture and execution of Ostap at the hands of the Poles and Bulba’s revenge and final noble sacrifice. These are all stirring story beats and while I am grateful for their inclusion, I am less grateful that they are present almost solely to provide Russian propaganda.

This version of Taras Bulba no doubt has poor Gogol spinning in his grave. I’m sure he never would have imagined that so many generations later his work would be bastardized as a piece of propaganda for the country that even now seeks to consume his Motherland whole and tries continually to repress its spirit, culture, language and people.

Worse yet, that it should be a version that reeks of Made-for-TV miniseries mediocrity.