Anyone potentially alienated by the name of Alexander Sokurov on this absorbing docu may rest easy: None of the Russian helmer's usual arty tics are evident, and Sokurov himself makes a perceptive, companionable interviewer of the legendary cellist-conductor and his soprano wife.

Anyone potentially alienated by the name of Alexander Sokurov on this absorbing docu may rest easy: None of the Russian helmer’s usual arty tics are evident, and Sokurov himself makes a perceptive, companionable interviewer of the legendary cellist-conductor and his soprano wife. Deeply Russian in its artistic and philosophical approach to the lives of the two musical giants, “Elegy of Life: Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya.” is manna for upscale auds and a natural for pubcaster, cable and fest programmers, with DVD biz down the line.

Documentary was world preemed at Locarno as a special screening on the occasion of Sokurov receiving a Leopard of Honor from the Swiss-Italian festival Aug. 11.

One of the most remarkable husband-and-wife musical teams in history, Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, now both 79, remain cogent interviewees. The former, raised in a thoroughly musical family, impresses with his astute observations on musicians and composers, while the latter, essentially a natural talent, provides some of the docu’s most moving moments as she reminisces on the cruel ironies of life (especially the death of her son).

Sokurov uses a celeb-packed, 50th wedding anni dinner as a cornerstone for the film — as well as an opportunity to indulge his ongoing fascination for royalty and aristocracy. Helmer criss-crosses between the glitzy chow-down, sequences of Rostropovich rehearsing a cello concerto by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki with the Vienna Philharmonic, and lengthy, one-on-one interviews with the duo about music, life and the state of the universe.

Throughout, Sokurov provides his own, apophthegmatic v.o. that gives the film a melancholic, echt-Russian undertow. Archive footage — in good visual condition though unfortunately weak on audio — initially sketches their backgrounds, with most of the detailed biography reserved for the second half.

The second half also goes into their working methods in more detail, with sequences of Vishnevskaya teaching a young Russian singer and Rostropovich rehearsing under Vienna Phil conductor Seiji Ozawa dramatically cross-cut.

Docu’s only stylistic quirk is occasional multi-screen using floating panels. Device works well, enriching the amount of information on screen and giving added texture to the otherwise straightforward shooting style.

Sokurov underlines the fact that, though seen as Russian archetypes, both were in several respects outsiders. Rostropovich’s family roots were Polish-Lithuanian, while Vishnevskaya’s were half-Polish, half-gypsy. Both ran afoul of the Communist authorities after sheltering novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and finally left the Soviet Union in 1974, stripped of their citizenship until welcomed back by Gorbachev.

Rostropovich proves an acute observer when comparing the different jobs of composers and performers, as well as musical styles. For him, Shostakovich’s music reps the strength of the Russian people, Prokofiev’s the depth and beauty of the Russian soul. Though he praises others like Britten, Shnitke and Messaien, he reserves his greatest admiration for the “simplicity” of J.S. Bach.

In the interviews, Sokurov manages to keep pace with Rostropovich’s quicksilver brain. With the self-taught Vishnevskaya, he largely avoids musical discussion and concentrates — at rather too much length — on feelings and generalities about life.

Between times, however, she regally laments the current lack of “big women” who could fill a hall with their voices. Clips from her own perfs, including “The Queen of Spades” and the 1966 opera pic, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (aka “Katerina Izmailova”), show what she means.

Though never mentioned, Vishnevskaya also stars in Sokurov’s forthcoming feature, the Chechnia-set “Alexandra.”

Elegy Of Life: Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya.

Russia

Production

A Svehr Film, Bereg Film, Svarag Film production. (International sales: Bereg, St. Petersburg.) Directed, written by Alexander Sokurov.

Crew

Camera (color, Digi-Beta), Igor Yerdin, Kirill Moskhovich, Mikhail Golubkov; editor, Sergey Ivanov; sound, Vladimir Persov. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Special Screening), Aug. 9, 2006. Running time: 101 MIN. (I: 51 MIN.; II: 50 MIN.)

With

Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Alexander Sokurov, Krzysztof Penderecki, Seiji Ozawa. (Russian, English dialogue)
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