Less lugubrious than his previous movie, “The Island,” but still laden with Russian brooding and violence, Pavel Lungin’s “Tsar” is a brief peep into Ivan the Terrible’s heart of darkness via a conflict between the regent and the head of the church. Terrific lead perfs by Pyotr Mamonov and Oleg Yankovsky keep the movie rolling along after a slow start, interspersed with gripping, bloody action. But despite handsome production values and rich, atmospheric lensing by Clint Eastwood regular Tom Stern, this is a heavy meal to digest outside the fest arena.
Story opens in the 1560s, when Ivan IV (Mamonov, all beaky nose and glowering eyes) is already falling deeper and deeper into religious mysticism; haunted by how he will be called to account at the Last Judgment, he has become paranoid about enemies all around him. In “The Tsar’s Prayer” — the first and least involving of the pic’s four chapters — he is already an all-powerful tyrant with a feared secret police, nicknamed “The Tsar’s Dogs,” which includes the flashing-eyed tsarina, Maria Temryukovna (Ramilya Iskander).
When the current metropolitan, or head of the Russian Church, resigns in protest, Ivan calls on his childhood friend, Filipp (Yankovsky, dignified), to take over the job. This is one of immense power in Orthodox Russia, and especially under Ivan, who has bloodily promoted the cause of Christianity against Islam threatening his borders. Warning Filipp that he must always serve the tsar and Russia first, Ivan persuades him to accept the post.
Conflict between the two soon arrives in the second section, “The Tsar’s War.” While inaugurating a church he calls “the New Jerusalem” with an elaborate cleansing ceremony performed by virgins, Ivan hears the city of Polotsk (in modern-day Belorussia) has been lost to the advancing Poles. Flying into a rage, he orders the commanders to be impaled and their horses hacked to pieces.
Filipp gives shelter to them but is forced to give them up to Ivan’s torturers, who extract “confessions” of cowardice. Filipp himself is spared, but when he refuses to endorse their death sentence,, Ivan simply has them torn apart in public by wild bears.
Though the religious background is different from that of either “A Man for All Seasons” or “Becket,” and the setting is much darker and more violent, the conflict between Ivan and Filipp spins on the same issues of duty vs. friendship and loyalty to the regent vs. loyalty to God. The extra wrinkle in “Tsar” is that Ivan has replaced religious conviction with fanaticism, megalomania and mental instability, bolstered by unlimited power wielded with a Russian ruthlessness.
Pic can also be read as a comment on more contempo Russia, though Lungin is on record as saying he had Stalinist Russia more in mind.
In the briefest seg, “The Tsar’s Sacrifice,” Filipp refuses to recognize Ivan’s authority, and the latter arrests him for treachery and impiety. In the concluding “The Tsar’s Fairground,” Ivan enters the final stages of madness and sadism.
With its telescoping of events, pic is more impressionistic than strictly historical, and features few literary-style debates between the two protags. But the medieval flavor is viscerally captured by the movie’s look and design, bolstered by a heavy, Mussorgsky-like score by Yuri Krasavin of repeated, shifting chords.