Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Celebrate Chekhov at the Walter Reade -- with a seven-film, seven-day festival

A world-class dramatist and short story writer, Anton Chekhov , right, pre-dated the movies, but his work, original and lasting, has beckoned filmmakers from around the globe, particularly the Russians, of which Chekhov was one. On the premise, I suppose, that Russians should know -- and maybe do -- their countryman best, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has organized a week-
long festival, beginning this Friday, November 27, of seven films based on the master's work titled Celebrating Chekhov: The Drama of Everyday Life. The films were made in 1960, in the 70s, and during our current decade.

While my own picks of "Best Chekhov-inspired works" would include Louis Malle's film of the Mamet/Gregory adaptation Vanya on 42nd Street (based on Uncle Vanya) and Claude Miller's La Petite Lili (based on The Seagull), the FSLC has certainly brought together a commanding array of films (click here for the complete program), including Chekhov's Motives, a diptych based on a pair of his works; the so-so Lady With a Dog; Uncle Vanya; The Seagull; The Shooting Party; An Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano and -- most anticipated perhaps -- the new film by Karen Shakhnazarov and Alexandr Gornovsky: an updated version of the short story Ward No. 6. (The film, stills from which are shown below, is Russia's official entry into our Academy's Best Foreign Language Film sweepstakes this year).

Mr. Shakhnazarov (shown at left), head of Russia's Mosfilm studio and a smart and engaging guy, not to mention a very good filmmaker -- Courier, Jazzmen, A Rider Named Death, Vanished Empire -- will be in attendance at several of the Q&As for Ward No. 6 (check here for particulars). Writing for GreenCine almost two years ago, I did an interview with this writer/director in which he talks about Mosfilm, the Russia film industry, and some of his own work. It'll be nice to have him back in the USA, even if, for my taste, Ward No. 6 falls a bit flat.

While I have heard splendid things about the Uncle Vanya, directed by, of all people, Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Tango & Cash), the only films I've seen in this fest are Lady With a Dog, which -- via acting that seemed to me stylized-unto-phony, even for the century-past period which it is supposed to mimic -- bored me nearly to distraction (I prefer the short story), and Ward No. 6, the Chekhov original of which I have not read. While I found the latter film interesting now and again, and certainly well-acted, I might have preferred to see it done in period, rather than updated to our current times.

However, placing the story in modern-day Russia does give the movie a contemporary kick and helps fill it with that peculiar kind of depression that I only find in films set in almost any of the satellites of the former USSR. That this film is also set in a mental institution just adds to its grayer-than-gray ambiance. It begins with talking-head interviews of various asylum patients: These are bizarre, sad and even sometimes rather funny. Then we cut to the past: 1606 and a history lesson about the building in which the institution is housed. Its many incarnations includes a TB hospital and now a lunatic asylum in which is incarcerated the former head doctor of the hospital (above, left, behind bars).

We meet him and the other patients, as well some of his non-institutionalized friends and the current young (and a little too sure of himself) chief-of-staff (above), and we watch and listen as they all engage in some interesting philosophical/medical/social discussions. Through it all, however, they're tired, depressed, expecting the worst. And why not: This is Russia -- with its ever-present peasants reacting to yet another regime change of economic and social system. Toward the end we get a trip to Moscow, complete with some jazzy music. Still, the feeling by the finale is not so much that the lunatics have taken over the asylum as that there is no one anywhere, inside or out, who might qualify as a leader -- or offer any help. The very abrupt ending had me wondering if an extra reel or two had been left on the projection room floor, but no: The movie is intended to last only 83 minutes.

The performances, no surprise, are very good, top to bottom. Press notes tell us that the film was actually written 20 years ago, with the lead to have been played by the late actor Marcello Mastroi-
anni. It's easy to see him in this role, but as it turns out, Russian actor Vladimir Ilyin (above) does a memorable job. I'll remember his anger, confusion and kindness as he attempts to "figure things out" with the help/hindrance of his friend/enemy and now co-patient, beautifully limbed by Alexey Vertkov (shown below).

What a festival such as this might well do is tantalize viewers enough to get them back to the original source. Chekhov did not live nearly long enough to enjoy the new art form of the motion picture, but how surprised and perhaps pleased he might be with what later artists have done with his work.

Photo, top, is courtesy of the FSLC;
those of Chekhov and Mr. Shakhnarazov are
courtesy of Wikipedia; the remaining are from Ward No. 6.

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