Tuesday, 13 December 2011
#13 Ukraine — Zvenigora (1928)
Why I chose this: It was described to me as a poetic propaganda film in an online forum. I thought it sounded interesting and the DVD was produced by a favourite of mine, Mr. Bongo, so why not?
Watching a film labeled as "avant-garde" is like looking for precious metals in a mass of discarded art history essays — sometimes you strike gold, but more often than not, you end up with a pile of pretentious rubbish. Zvenigora most definitely lies under the first umbrella.
Filmed in 1928 under Soviet rule as the first part of his Ukraine Trilogy, Dovzhenko referred to Zvenigora as his "party membership card". Although it savagely attacks the european bourgeoisie and praises the beauty of Ukranian landscapes and industrialism, Zvenigora is much more than a simple propaganda film.
What little story there is follows an old man whom tells his grandson of a great Viking treasure buried in the mountains of Zvenigora which they both search out for most of their lives. The plot stays in the background for the majority of the film, eclipsed behind the dreamlike imagery, symbolic editing and poetic narrative. The influence of this can be seen in the likes of Tarkovsky's Zerkalo and Antonioni's L'Eclisse.
Using multiple exposures for image superimposition is a technique which has sadly fallen out of use due to the wide use of CGI. Such a simple tool can be put to great use with a bit of imagination, such as in the regrettably forgotten Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, the films of George Melies and Buster Keaton's The Playhouse. Zvenigora uses it in the Viking flashback scene to put a beautiful dream-like haze over proceedings, which makes it one of the most memorable and inventive scenes in a film which is full of them.
Although the film may sound similar to Soy Cuba, the propaganda aspects are less in-your-face — the reason for which the film gained little appreciation by the government despite its underlying beliefs — which makes it much easier to enjoy simply as a "cinematographical poem" than as a mainly political picture. Viewers who like their surrealism a bit more subtle than what the French would produce in the following years will find a lot to like, as will fans of poetic, contemplative cinema a la Tarkovsky.
Also recommended from Ukraine:
Ballad of a Soldier
Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors