An artful mix of archival footage, classical music and spoken selections from the composer’s letters and diaries, “A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich” may strike a responsive chord with venturesome auds who frequent film-series screenings at museums, college campuses and other not-for-profit venues. The Russian-U.S. co-production might also be used by canny fund-raisers for symphonies in small and midsized communities where commercial theaters rarely exhibit such esoteric fare. Pic begins its world-premiere engagement today at New York’s Two Boots Pioneer Theater, in both English- and Russian-language versions.
Helmers Oksana Dvornichenko and Helga Landauer effectively structure their dreamily paced documentary into nine chapters, each devoted to a day in the final ocean voyage of the composer’s life. In 1974, Shostakovich set sail aboard the Mikhail Lermontov, pride of the USSR line, on his way to receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts at Northwestern U.
During the cruise, Shostakovich was intended to serve as a kind of centerpiece for a Soviet public relations push that also included concerts, screenings of movies with Shostakovich scores and propaganda films ostensibly intended to show passengers what the USSR is all about.
It is the conceit of the filmmakers, however, that Shostakovich spent most of his copious free time during the voyage ruminating over his uncertain future (he already was partially incapacitated by polio) and, more important, his eventful past. (He died in Moscow in 1975.)
Pic adroitly matches newsreels, photos and homemovies (and, sometimes to humorous effect, promotional films for the ocean liner itself) to voiceover narration while offering an “autobiographical” portrait of the artist as an old man. Overall effect ranges from richly amusing (Shostakovich is decidedly less than nostalgic as he recalls providing musical accompaniment for silent movies) to sociopolitically astute.
Time and again, the pic underscores Shostakovich’s occasionally strained relationship with a government that viewed an artist as nothing more than another instrument of the state. At one point, a factory worker is quoted in Pravda as complaining the composer’s compositions are too high-toned: “We need the kind of music that can be understood by all Soviet people.” But for most auds, the pic’s chief appeal will be a soundtrack rich with selections from Shostakovich’s masterworks.