A captivating, exquisitely lensed widescreen tale inspired by a true incident, “Serko” follows a young Cossack as he rides his pony-sized horse 4,000 miles from southern Siberia to St. Petersburg, ca. 1889, to give the czar a polite piece of his mind. Vet director Joel Farges imbues yarn with effortless visual sweep and salutary emotion. A genuine charmer for kids on up, equestrian adventure should make hay for fests and niche distribs.
French-language v.o. comes courtesy of Emile Fragonard (Jacques Gamblin, sprightly), a Parisian who is touring the Russian sticks with his shadow-puppet show –an expressive, light-and-movement precursor to the movies.
In a bid to enrich the corrupt local governor, bad guys offer a handful of guns and a few sacks of flour to the indigenous Evenk tribe of Siberia for their herd of special horses. They believe the horses will come in handy as grub for the workers on the Trans-Siberian railway.
However, 18-year-old Cossack Dimitri Pechkov (Aleksei Chadov) is sickened when the leader of the bad guys, Bouvarine (Nikolai Smirnov), shoots his Evenk friend in down cold blood.
Dimitri, who needs to prove himself to his dismissive father, saddles his dead friend’s steed, which he rechristens Serko. Although he’s never been out of his village, Dimitri is determined to ride to St. Petersburg to ask the czar to uphold his promise to protect the Evenks and their horses.
Dimitri has adventures along the way, living off the land — be it tundra, ice or snow — and, in his headlong innocence, making exceptional time. (Although the real Pechkov’s journey was prompted by religious faith rather than social ecology, his feat — riding from Blagovechtchensk to St. Petersburg in 193 days using a single mount — has never been equaled.)
Fearful the czar will hear of his perfidy, the governor attempts to sabotage Dimitri’s journey. But the lad crosses snowy paths with Fragonard, who incorporates Dimitri’s amazing adventures into his shadow-puppet performances. Both men’s notoriety grows.
Location lensing is scrumptious, suspense genuine and perfs endearing. Local color is always integrated into the narrative without devolving into gratuitous exoticism.