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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Bondarchuk's War and Peace

I spent over seven hours of this weekend watching for the first time Sergei Bondarchuk's frankly flabbergasting War and Peace. Apparently, I am lucky to have found a version in widescreen and one so long, after all, since many versions available for sale have been reduced to five panned-and-scanned hours or worse.

The music by Viacheslav Ovchinnikov is all very Russian in an early Prokofiev late Shostakovich sort of way, ranging stylistically to accommodate the somewhat wildly ranging levels and tonalities of the drama, but often simply stunning. Oh, hell, everything is stunning.

There were over a hundred twenty thousand people in the Battle of Borodino sequence, for heaven's sake, how could one fail to be stunned by camera sweeps over thousands upon thousands of shattered scattering people in swirling hurricane eddies of fire and smoke and black debris as Moscow burns? Certainly the spectacle of the film instantly gives the lie to those who would declare digital effects remotely the equal of orchestrations of materiality.

But talking about these sorts of things is really facile, and risks the inevitable impression that this film is a white elephant (well, it is something of a white elephant, really, but I don't think it is right to dismiss it as one), since it is the juxtaposition of the spectacular with the intimate, internal dialogue with public struggle, monstrous machineries with fields of stars, flowers, trees, swirling dancers that provides the truly shattering effect of the film.

I can easily imagine critics would declare the battle scenes glorifications of war, but I cannot agree that the dying eye of some tender-hearted man that becomes a whirlpool of smoking-white percussive horse hoofs making foot-fall among exploding shells, a battle formation that shrinks into -- is that a twisting hurricane or a shuddering cell in amicroscope's slide? -- climbing, climbing up impossibly into a cloud bank and then searing across miles of blank wild landscape really finally has the effect of a glorification of war, of all things, especially when the same camera will spend as much time tracking the dispersed moon along the surface of a stream or climbing vines twining a centuries old trunk in a blaze of sunlight broken by a billion leaves while characters declare "human beings were made for happiness!" or "I am all this, I am all these things, you would try to kill or imprison this?"

Of course, I don't think any film really could match Tolstoy's novel, but this one really evokes filmically much that has actually mattered to me personally in that wonderful book, and it is an accomplishment. Give it a week-end and tell me what you thought of it.


Mike Treder said...

I was lucky enough to see the whole amazing epic on the big screen a couple of years ago at Film Forum in New York. Absolutely stunning -- not just in its cinematic extravagance and audacity, but also in its emotional and philosophical impact. A glorious achievement.

jimf said...

> Apparently, I am lucky to have found a version in widescreen
> and one so long, after all, since many versions available for sale
> have been reduced to five panned-and-scanned hours or worse.

Was this the 2003 Image Entertainment DVD set?

Format: Anamorphic, Box set, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
Language: French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Russian (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese, Russian, Dutch, Arabic, Japanese, Greek
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Number of discs: 5
Rating: Unrated
Studio: Image Entertainment
DVD Release Date: June 3, 2003
Run Time: 427 minutes

The "Product Details" at Amazon (if they're given at all -- they aren't
always comprehensive) should apply to the specific release you're buying,
but the Customer Reviews can be of any release (though
presumably they at least all apply to the same **film**).