Issue 30 (2010)

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Priest (Pop, 2010)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2010

popVeteran director Vladimir Khotinenko’s latest offering is a follow-up to his 2007 historical mega-drama 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles, a film that was widely criticized for its blatant and relentless Russian nationalism and historical revisionism. (For example, Khotinenko added a unicorn and a ghost to the tale of the first Romanov tsar.) Many interpreted the excesses of 1612 as a quid pro quo for the lavish government funding behind the production and promotion of the film, and some even saw the over-the-top celebration of the Russian state as a sign that the Russian film industry had returned to the days of the government-ordered film (goszakaz). This new Khotinenko film will do little to redeem him in the eyes of those who accused him of selling out to curry official favor, although The Priest is a rather different sort of historical drama. It is, however, one that also saw the light of day due to the initiative of an extra-cinematic institution, the Russian Orthodox Church, which also awarded Khotinenko and lead actor Sergei Makovetskii prizes for their work on the film.

popIn 2005, no less an authority than Patriarch Aleksii II told Sergei Kravets, the director of the Church-affiliated research center and production company “Orthodox Encyclopedia”, of the Church’s desire to see a film produced about the experiences of Orthodox clergy in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory during the Great Patriotic War. Khotinenko was recruited, and he and Kravets approached the historical novelist Aleksandr Segen’ to write a novel that would be the basis for a screenplay. Together with Khotinenko, Segen’ended up adapting his own novel for the screen, as the director’s first choice of screenwriter, the well-known Georgian filmmaker Iraklii Kvirikadze, was unavailable. Segen’ based his story in part on the memoirs of Father Aleksei Ionov, one of the priests from the Baltic republics recruited by Metropolitan Sergii Voskresenskii in 1941 to move to the occupied Pskov region of Russia in order to re-establish the Pskov Orthodox Mission. The resurrection of the mission was a project made possible due to the wartime relaxation of official Soviet anti-religious policy (which had led to the appointment of a new metropolitan in the first place), and to the Germans’ tolerance and even promotion of Orthodox activity in the Soviet territory they had occupied.  The Reich saw the opportunity to use its patronage of the Church as a propagandistic example to the “liberated” Russian people of how much better their lives would be under Nazism in contrast to godless Communism.

popThe Priest begins in June 1941, just before the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Father Aleksandr Ionin is a village priest in Latvia (by this time already part of the Soviet Union) with a reputation as a gifted and effective pastor to his small flock. He agrees to baptize—and eventually adopts—the young daughter of a local Jewish man. In one of the film's first shots, we see Father Aleksandr cutting out images of angels and saints to be used for a makeshift religious chapbook for children who can't read, the first of many opportunities the character has to demonstrate his devotion to the spiritual education of children. By the end of the film he and his wife, Mother Alevtina, have adopted no fewer than eight war refugees and even some children released from a concentration camp. In August 1941, Ionin is summoned to Riga by Church leaders and told he is being sent to a village in the Pskov region as part of the mission. In his new role, Father Aleksandr quickly oversees the restoration of the local Cathedral of St. Aleksandr Nevskii—not an accidental choice of saint for a film about Russia and Germany— to its pre-Soviet glory. The portrait of Stalin is removed, revealing an icon underneath. The cathedral bell is salvaged from the river. The Soviet red star is taken down from the onion-domed cupola, and Father Aleksandr begins to minister to his new flock.  

popIt is relevant that the late Patriarch's interest in the Pskov Mission was personal—his father was a priest in Tallinn during the occupation—but also professional. Part of the Russian Orthodox Church's rebirth over the past twenty years has been a self-rehabilitation of its own image, which is tarnished for many by the Church's perceived collaboration with the Stalinist and Nazi regimes during the war, and with the Soviets thereafter. The issue of complicity vs. resistance is certainly addressed in Khotinenko's film. Father Aleksandr has a complex relationship with Colonel Freigausen, a Russified German who intercedes with the Reich on the priest's behalf several times, but is (temporarily) shunned by Father Aleksandr after overseeing the public execution of four partisans. Segen' and Khotinenko's script gives the priest ample opportunities to demonstrate his independence from both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis—something that Father Aleksei Ionov, the historical figure on whom the character is based, did not demonstrate. Ionov retreated with the Nazi army to Germany when the territory was recaptured by the Red Army.

popThe character's arc is also drawn to depict his shift towards apolitical Russian patriotism: he refuses to give last rites to a group of politsai (Russians serving as the Nazi's local police force) who were killed in a partisan raid. He angers his much more careful wife by loudly and publicly referring to them as "traitors to their motherland." He also refuses to obey a directive from the Reich that all Russian priests in Nazi territory must offer prayers for the victory of Germany. Then, after the Soviets retake the region and begin to interrogate and imprison priests, Father Aleksandr refuses to sign a confession, and goes off to the Gulag with a clear conscience.

Saving the film from being essentially just a visual hagiography are subplots involving Lesha, a young Russian partisan, who bears a grudge against the priest for restoring the cathedral on the site of the Soviet youth club where he courted and fell in love with his girlfriend, Masha, who was killed by the Nazis, and the story of another local man who chose to join the politsai. The character of the Jewish girl Hava, who is baptized as Eva by Ionin, also helps "cinematize" the story, although the complete lack of concern on the part of anyone in the film, including Father Aleksandr and even Eva herself, for the fate of her Jewish relatives back in Latvia rings false.

popKhotinenko and his cinematographer, Il’ia Demin, use a handful of devices, including special effects and a dream sequence, to enhance and illuminate the visual plane of the film. There are several unusual perspective shots, including one of the opening shots, in which we see Father Aleksandr at work at his desk from the perspective of a fly that flies in through the window and lands on the scripture he is studying. Khotinenko and his cast and crew were working with a complex set of historical and ideological circumstances, to say the least, and he does manage to balance the clear agenda behind the film against the aesthetic and narrative demands of professional filmmaking more adroitly than he did in 1612, and more gracefully than, say, Nikita Mikhalkov did in his recent epic sequel, Burnt by the Sun 2.

Seth Graham
University College London

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The Priest, Russia, 2009
Color, 130 minutes, Russian and German
Director: Vladimir Khotinenko
Screenplay: Aleksandr Segen’ (based on his novel)
Cinematography: Il’ia Demin
Music: Aleksei Rybnikov
Cast: Sergei Makovetskii (Father Aleksandr Ionin); Nina Usatova (Mother Alevtina); Liza Arzamasova (Eva Ionina); Kirill Pletnev (Aleksei Lugotintsev); Anatolii Lobotskii (Colonel Ivan Fedorovich Freigausen); Iurii Tsurilo (Metropolitan Sergii Voskresenskii)
Production: KTK ‘Orthodox Encyclopedia’

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Priest (Pop, 2010)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10