Issue 29 (2010)

Nikolai Dreiden: Angel’s Aisle (Pridel Angela, 2008)

reviewed by Arlene Forman © 2010

“Kind Film” of a Different Kind

pridelSince its August premier at “Window to Europe-2008,” Angel’s Aisle has attracted considerable attention. In Vyborg it received the Rostotsky Prize for best debut film, in November it won the Grand Prize at Moscow’s “Radiant Angel” Festival and in December earned its director, Nikolai Dreiden, a top prize at Novgorod’s Historical Film Festival “Veche.” In October 2009, the movie placed third in the International Orthodox Film Festival “Pokrov” held in Kiev, behind Vladimir Khotinenko’s Priest (Pop, 2010) and Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (2009). Were we to judge the film by the company it keeps, we might expect yet another pretentious hagiopic that has, of late, come into favor. Fortunately, this proves not to be the case: Angel’s Aisle strikes this reviewer as an interesting and honest attempt to create an engaging feature film that promotes spiritual values and personal responsibility. 

pridelBilled as a dramatic thriller, Angel’s Aisle unfolds in 1924, after Lenin’s death. We are introduced to a young Chekist (Aleksei Morozov), who demonstrates his commitment to the Bolshevik cause by executing a priest when all around him fail to do so. The operative, himself the son of a priest, is next instructed to pose as a postulant at the Konevsky Monastery and there await his next target. Under the alias of Maksim Proshin, he embarks on a journey outside of Soviet space in pursuit of much larger prey: the Regent of Finland, Carl Gustav Mannerheim (a role Tapani Perttu has often interpreted for Finnish audiences both on stage and screen).

In Karelia, Maksim encounters the youngster assigned to take him across the border into enemy territory. The generous, noble Zhenia (a remarkable performance by the then six-year-old Masha Reznik) serves as Maksim’s geographical guide and moral compass, forcing him to reevaluate his beliefs and behavior, a process that only intensifies when the two enter the monastic community’s life on an island in Lake Ladoga. For some the venue and the murderer-protagonist have prompted comparisons with Pavel Lungin’s Island(Ostrov, 2006). While the twenty-something director demurs, he archly suggests that he approached the issue of sin and redemption from a distinctly Petersburg perspective. Dreiden has consciously built his tale of crime and punishment upon Dostoevsky’s original, complete with revelatory dreams, the trope of illness and the transformative power of faith and repentance.  

pridelAs the son of playwright Alla Sokolova and renowned actor Sergei Dreiden (Russian Ark, most recently Help Gone Mad, Room and a Half), Nikolai sprang from a theatrical milieu and drew most of his cast from the boards of the Lensovet, Aleksandrinsky, Pushkin and Maly Drama Theaters. The prescient Father Sviatoslav (played by octogenerian Lev Eliseev), the monastery’s spiritual leader Father Mavriki (Vladimir Matveev), the loutish youth Zhzhenov (Vladimir Lysenko), not to mention Maksim, are portrayed by several generations of Petersburg thespians. Even Emiliia Spivak, who appears as the adult Zhenia towards the end of the film, was cast against her cinematic profile and plays a character more in line with her theatrical roles. Dreiden’s direction of this ensemble cast of Russian and Finnish actors gives his film a look and feel far removed from Lungin’s Island

Truth be told, Dreiden’s inspiration came from other islands. In 2004 he received an invitation from Father Isidor, a friend of the family, to visit the recently restored Konevsky Monastery of the Blessed Virgin’s Birth. Founded in the late fourteenth century on an island in Lake Ladoga, the contested territory would, over time, fall under Russian, Swedish, Finnish, and Soviet rule. After this initial visit the aspiring student director began contemplating a documentary about the monastery’s unusual history. A year later he broached the possibility to Father Isidor, who granted him access to photographs and archival material.  He pitched the idea to noted filmmaker Grigorii Nikulin Junior, the producer of Nikolai’s first documentary project Legend of Rerikh (2005). Nikulin agreed to produce this film as well. Island. Exodus, completed in 2007, proved a true family affair: in addition to the assistance of both spiritual and professional mentors, his biological father Sergei lent his voice to the narrative. (Access on YouTube: Part One and Part Two)

pridelIsland’s visual texture and pacing would ultimately give shape to Angel’s Aisle, which incorporates more than the former’s images and techniques. From his research for the documentary Nikolai would subsequently fashion a feature film to entertain and enlighten young viewers. Father Isidor’s religious expertise and his prior theatrical experience helped impart a sense of authenticity to this big-screen representation of the monastic life and Church traditions. (As actor Igor’ Minaev he had shared the stage with Nikolai’s father; here he worked primarily off camera, though reportedly made an anonymous appearance in a crowd scene or two).  Most importantly, Nikolai Dreiden continued to grapple with spiritual issues with a sensibility reminiscent of Grigorii Nikulin’s best “films of faith” (Timely Thoughts [Sovremennye mysli, 2006], Visiting the Priest [V gostiakh u batiushki, 2006]). Angel’s Aisle is dedicated to Nikulin, the film’s producer until his untimely death in 2007.  

pridelWith time, opportunity, and talent, Nikolai Dreiden has created a well-paced, religious drama championing the virtues of honesty, sacrifice, and personal culpability. Like others before him, Dreiden employs mimetic art as a signifier for the divine: throughout the film Maksim sketches the world around him, creating a sketchbook that illustrates his spiritual transformation. Overall it is a well-made film that urges its viewers to do good rather than feel good. Amidst a spate of historical blockbusters that do little to distinguish between Russian Orthodoxy and political orthodoxy, the lyricism, message, and basic sincerity of Nikolai Dreiden’s mature debut suggest that a new wave of spiritual cinema may be on the horizon.

Arlene Forman
Oberlin College

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Works Cited

Viktor Chervinskii, “Zapomnite eto imia – Nikolai Dreiden,” Utro Peterburga, 5 August 2009.

Konstantin Glushenko, “Ustranit’ Mannerheima,” Nevskoe vremia, 5 September 2007.

Aleksandra Tanina, “Nikolai Dreiden: Ia boialsia uspekha,” Vesti, 9 October 2008.

“’Pridel Angela’: Istoriia neproshchennogo cheloveka,” Vseukrainskii zhurnal “Mgarskii kolokol,” No 71, December 2008.

Angel’s Aisle, 2008
Color, 92 min.
Director: Nikolai Dreiden
Scriptwriter: Nikolai Dreiden
Cinematography: Valerii Lerner
Art Director:  Aleksandr Suvorov
Music: Mariia Romanova
Cast: Aleksei Morozov, Emiliia Spivak, Mariia Reznik, Tapani Perttu, Aleksandr Bargman, Artur Vakha, Vitalii Kovalenko, Dmitrii Lysenkov, Vladimir Matveev, Khel’ga Fillippova, Vitas Eizenakh, Oleg Riazantsev
Producers: Grigorii Nikulin, Tamara Ponomarenko, Viacheslav Tel’nov
Production: Studio EN in association with Lenfilm and the Konevsky Monastery of the Blessed Virgin’s Birth

Nikolai Dreiden: Angel’s Aisle (Pridel Angela, 2008)

reviewed by Arlene Forman © 2010

Updated: 16 Jul 10