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Sunday, March 24, 2013

VADNIK PO IMENI SMERT / THE RIDER IS DEATH (2004)

In Pre-Revolutionary Russia, even the political terrorists come straight out of Chekhov. In this fact-inspired story, a small unit of like-minded extremists get their orders from some unseen Central Socialist Committee, taking on the assassination of high-ranking Tsarist military figures. Next on the list is the Grand Duke, Uncle to the Tsar, if only this handful of fanatics can get thru a clandestine meeting without some personal crisis erupting. It starts with the cold-hearted head of operations who may sleep with the group’s bomb-maker, but won’t say ‘I love you.’ He only warms to his violent task . . . and the glamorous amoral wife of an unknowing Military officer. Meantime, the group’s resident anarchist pins his hopes to the unhappy bomb expert, not that she cares. She can barely turn out a working explosive device! And don’t forget the idealistic university lad who’s too intellectual to get himself past revolutionary theory and onto revolutionary practice. Pulling up the rear of the conspirators is a baby-faced true-believer. Alas, it’s Jesus, not Marx he believes in. And he worries about collateral damage instead of injustice. It’s hard to think of a Chekhov play you couldn’t cast with this crew. Yet, it’s also deadly serious business, these are the forebears of the revolution a decade down the road. If only director Karen Shakhnazarov had the daring, or the technique, to get under his cast of characters & their varied motives to show how noble deeds were done for so many wrong reasons and ignoble deeds for right ones; and the tragicomedy that took everyone there. (It’s a job for Tom Stoppard. In fact, a job he more-or-less took on in his play trilogy THE COAST OF UTOPIA/’02.) Shakhnazarov gives his film an intriguing look, though it’s impossible to know if its intentional. But the bright, ultra-clear color processing & palette, along with the old-fashioned, nearly-square Academy Ratio picture give the film the look of a Soviet-Era brochure, as if Colonial Williamsburg had added a franchise: Land of late-Tsarist Moscow.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Can it be an accident that this unmerry band is lead by an actor (Andrey Panin) who looks like a cross between Jon Voight and Vladimir Putin?

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