Alexander Sokurov’s distinctive style of filmmaking is on display again in “Taurus,” a companion piece to “Moloch,” his 1999 Cannes Intl. Film Festival honoree for screenplay. Latter film was an oblique study of Adolf Hitler, and the new one is an even more oblique study of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the man who brought communism to Russia — though he is never actually named. It has become clear, sadly, that Sokurov no longer cares very much about his audience; this entirely hermetic, and for the most part unrevealing, film seems to have been conceived entirely without regard for anyone who would pay money to see it — outside Russia, of course, where Lenin still counts for something. Destined to play in festivals that will screen anything by a famous name without regard to the quality of the work itself, “Taurus” is likely to bore even the most patient festgoers, despite the occasional moment in which the director’s former vision powerfully reasserts itself.
The first problem is that the film is completely uncontextualized. Sokurov assumes the audience knows what was happening in the newly created USSR in 1923, when the state’s founder was dying, at 51, as the result of a stroke. Confined to a dacha (country house), appropriated from some exiled or murdered rich man, cared for by a resident doctor, and his wife and sister, and guarded night and day, the man who wielded so much power now has none.
The film’s press book helpfully fills in the historical background of the pic, but filmgoers are given absolutely nothing in the way of essential scene-setting. Many will bring with them their own ideas about Lenin, but even more will be left floundering. Sokurov and his supporters would argue that the point is not to make a film about the life of one of the 20th century’s most controversial and powerful figures, but to study a man, a deeply flawed one. But some inkling of who Lenin was and what was happening in the country during the brief period in which the film unfolds, would have been helpful.
Mostly, the sick man lies in bed or putters about the house, picnics with his complaisant wife or puts up with his giggling sister. Newspapers are forcibly removed by his guards; telephones don’t work (he’s told that’s because “the damp Russian climate isn’t good for telecommunications”).
Cut off from the outside world, he mostly lies in bed and thinks about the past, recalling his ultrareligious, long-dead mother. He also consults with his doctor, who morosely opines that once the patient dies he will be either shot or exiled. A photographer routinely takes pictures of the few comings and goings.
The most important guest at the home is Stalin, though again the name is never mentioned. He arrives to present Lenin with a walking stick offered as a gift by the Politburo. It would have been engraved, he tells the dying man, but one Politburo member vetoed it. Trotsky, it seems, was the dissenter. The sick man doesn’t really comprehend who is visitor is — is he a Georgian?, he asks his wife (Stalin was).
After Stalin’s visit, Lenin becomes troubled by the fact that he’s living in appropriated luxury while people are starving, and he begins to smash crockery with the stick Stalin gave him. There’s some deep symbolism here, but it doesn’t make for a terribly dramatic scene.
Pic ends quietly with the dying man sitting alone, serenely, in his chair. By depicting Lenin as a senile old duffer, Sokurov runs the risk, as he did with his Hitler film, of reducing one of the most notorious figures of recent history to banality. That may be his point, but it could be argued that the depiction of Hitler and Lenin as grumpy old men also reduces them as forces for evil in the eyes of contemporary audiences.
Admirers of Sokurov’s films, and especially his sublime “Mother and Son” (1996), will be disappointed by the fact that the striking images he has created in the past have congealed into visual cliches. The desaturated, soft-focus, green-tinged look of the film, which the director photographed himself, looks mannered and drab.
It’s to be hoped that this important filmmaker is in a temporary rut from which he can extract himself. But, apart from a few fleeting moments of insight and humor, “Taurus” is pretty near insufferable.
Leonid Mozgovoi is an acceptable Lenin, though Sergei Razhuk’s Stalin is a lightweight character. Best performance comes from Maria Kuznetsova as the sick man’s loyal peasant wife.