Amid an awards season even more than typically cluttered with solemn, respectful if not always stringently factual biopics, there’s a certain guilty pleasure in seeing something as gaga as “Chagall-Malevich.” In many respects, octogenarian Aleksandr Mitta’s first feature in more than a decade could pass as one made in his heyday as a leading light of Soviet state cinema many decades ago. It also recalls “The Music Lovers”-era Ken Russell, deeming no dramatic or aesthetic stroke too broad for the job of depicting the fevered internal and external lives of artistic geniuses. This freely imagined screen “folklore ballad” dramatizes the rivalry between Russian painters Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich in a spirit of vodka-soaked, color-saturated, shtetls-on-fire abandon. Outside former Soviet territories, it will fare best as a niche home-format item, particularly among Jewish audiences and programmers.
An almost cartoonish tenor is set from the outset, as Chagall’s birth takes place during a flaming pogrom. We then leap forward three decades; he’s now living in a 1914 Parisian garret naturally full of wine, women and song. He returns home to Vitebsk in order to marry childhood love Bella (Kristina Schneidermann), despite her family’s objections and rival wooing by poet Naum (Semyon Shkalikov). When the outbreak of WWI prevents the couple from returning to Europe, Chagall decides to create “a smaller Paris” in Vitebsk, eventually founding an arts college with the reluctant cooperation of Naum, who’s become a regional leader in the new socialist state.
Chagall’s whimsical, folkloric modernism and Pied Piper persona enthrall many students who soon flock here. But his “bourgeois individualism” strikes others as irrelevant to a revolutionary society, particularly once the staff is joined by Malevich (Anatoly Bely), a leading advocate of the “Suprematist” style, whose bold, simple geometric designs are endorsed as truly populist art by no less than Trotsky. Malevich’s humorless polemicism attracts its own cult-like student following.
Meanwhile, Naum remains hopelessly in love with Bella, who is not above manipulating that devotion to protect a husband oblivious to the political precariousness of his position. A subplot involves talented young artist Lyova (Yakov Levda), who’s already suffered the violent brunt of Tsarist/Soviet anti-Semitism, and yearns to paint despite his conservative rabbi father’s staunch opposition.
While it calms down somewhat after the galloping kitsch of its first reel, “Chagall-Malevich” remains a historical flashback in which strict accuracy takes a distant backseat to high cinematic expressionism. This generally means breathless performance and scene rhythms in line with the enthusiastically one-dimensional screenplay, plus overripe imagery often directly inspired by the subjects’ paintings. (Which would work better if the film’s low-end digital f/x and garish color manipulations weren’t so crudely conspicuous.)
To call results over-the-top is less a criticism than a statement of intent. While it may be old-fashioned and silly in many respects, Mitta’s film is not dull, and its heedless embrace of cliche has a retro charm. Tech/design aspects are somewhat uneven, but always spirited.