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The Russian Idea

Narrator: Alexei Petrenko.

Narrator: Alexei Petrenko.

The problem with the adventurous British Film Institute series produced for the Centenary of Cinema is partly one of mixed expectations. This was a wonderful opportunity to trace the history of world cinema in the key film-producing countries, and one of the first to be seen, “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through the American Cinema,” demonstrated how to be both personal and comprehensive. Other entries in the series have been turned by their sometimes distinguished directors into at times embarrassingly personal explorations with little in the way of film history involved. The Russian entry in the series is one of these.

Director Sergei Selyanov seems to have been principally inspired, not by cinema, but by a turn-of-the century book, “The Russian Idea, by philospher Nikolai Berdayev. Berdayev claimed that the Russian character and spirit was composed of vastly conflicting elements: despotism and anarchy, cruelty and kindness, a desire to worship God and a militant atheism, servilism and a need to revolt. Taking these elements as a starting point, Selyanov has constructed a film composed of seven episodes, plus an epilogue, in which scenes from (mostly) silent films illustrate Berdayev’s theories. Passages from his book are read as images from famous films by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and others speed by (at the incorrect speed).

This seems a perverse way of tackling what was undoubtedly one of the world’s great cinemas, and the fact that the only post-1940 extract included (in the epilogue) is from Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker’ (1979) will indicate the scant attention has been paid to recounting a history of the Russian cinema. The result is a pretentiously arty item, of limited interest on any level, and one of the most disappointing entries in this vastly uneven series.

The Russian Idea

(RUSSKAJA IDEJA) (DOCUMENTARY - RUSSIAN-BRITISH)

  • Production: A Centre Seip Film-Tri Te-Roskomkino-Kinostudio STV co-production, in association with the British Film Institute, Produced by Leonid Verescagin, Valery Ruzin. Executive producer. Colin MacCabe. Directed by Sergei Selyanov, Screenplay Oleg Kovalov.
  • Crew: Editor, Georgy Minayev; music, Vladimir Radchenkov; sound, Kirill Kuzmin; consultants, Tony Rayns, Natalia Jakovleva. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Window on Images), Aug. 31, 1996. Running time: 51 MIN.
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