Issue 39 (2013)

Rainer Sarnet: The Idiot (Idioot, 2011)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2013

idiotRainer Sarnet’s 2011 adaptation of Fedor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot was one of several Estonian films screened at the Cambridge Film Festival in September 2012. The film emerges from that country’s blossoming film industry, which has come into its own in recent years. According to the opening remarks that introduced Sarnet’s Idiot, it was this film that inspired such strong Estonian representation at this year’s festival: “When we saw The Idiot, we had the sense that something was up in Estonia’s film world and started to dig a bit deeper.” Indeed, this Idiot is nothing short of remarkable.

Dostoevsky’s 1868 novel is a popular work to adapt for the screen, but its narrative disjointedness poses a challenge for directors. Many adaptations focus on the novel’s plot, closely following the story of the invalid Christ-figure Myshkin’s return to Russia, various adventures, and ultimate fate. These include Petr Chardynin’s 1910 short film, the classic 1958 Ivan Pyr’ev adaptation, and the meticulous 2003 mini-series from Vladimir Bortko. Some versions attempt to convey the novel’s ideas without relying on its settings or details; among these are Akira Kurosawa’s sweeping 1951 visualization, Andrzej Wajda’s Nastazja (1994), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s unrealized plans to adapt the novel for the screen. In addition, the novel lends itself to unexpected modernizations; among others, it inspired Roman Kachanov’s 2001 spoof Down House and even, to some extent, Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and, of course, its 1961 film adaptation).

idiotSarnet’s Idiot takes a different approach. Eschewing a novelistic impulse to build narrative threads, Sarnet’s film cuts Dostoevsky’s story into episodes—meticulously and stylishly crafting scenes, but jumping abruptly from one to the next. Sarnet instead creates tableaux that succeed both in showcasing the characters’ psychologies and in capturing the histrionic atmosphere of key episodes in the text. Some have objected to this approach; for example, Eero Tammi criticizes the film for its “loose... even erratic” editing lacking “rhythm and tempo.” I contend, however, that this film stands on its own and see its lack of a unifying narrator’s voice as a virtue. Sarnet’s episodic approach manages to convey the novel’s mood and meaning without reliance on the linear chronology that has so bogged down previous adaptations.

idiotThe Idiot skillfully builds atmosphere through setting. Nearly all of the film takes place in a gothic cathedral, created by blending the nineteenth-century Alexander Lutheran Church in Narva with two Tallinn sites: the medieval Dominican Monastery and the Renaissance-era House of the Black Heads. Utilitarian furniture and props define scenes, but only to give viewers a sense of, for example, Nastasia Filippovna’s lavish drawing room, the site of her notorious birthday party, or Rogozhin’s dark study. Sophisticated use of light and shadow delineate these sets, just as their furnishings define them. Other settings, however, are more obviously parts of a church. The train car where Myshkin, Rogozhin and Lebedev meet in the novel’s initial scene is a group of pews. General Epanchin’s study is a small prayer chapel. These scenes seem to have a two-fold effect; they intentionally reveal the cathedral backdrop and also force the film’s reliance on dialogue and camera work to convey its message. The hybrid cathedral interior simultaneously evokes Dostoevsky’s ultimately theological premise for creating the novel and the work’s inherent claustrophobia as well as, to some extent, its frenetic anxiety. The looming gloomy space creates a charged atmosphere for the work that subtly sets off the episodes it frames.

idiotThe film feels fresh and modern, but also has a timeless quality about it that is reinforced by the characters’ costumes. Myshkin wears a rumpled neutrally-colored suit and seems like he could just as easily blend into the nineteenth century as the 1950s. Rogozhin appears as a punk, wearing combat boots and sporting a vivid neck tattoo that reads “Gott mit uns.” Lebedev favors a 1970s style featuring turtlenecks. Nastasia Filippovna is a consummate femme fatale, appearing in designer clothing and always fearsomely stylishly turned out. Perhaps the most extreme looks are given to the ladies of the Epanchin family. The mother vaguely resembles a blonde Endora from the 1960s series Bewitched and the daughters take this style even further, reminding one uncannily of the Femmebots from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Aglaia’s youthful rebellion transforms her bouffant into a buzz cut, infusing her character with a glam-punk style. One might assume that this odd assortment of costumes would detract from the film, but I found that these external details added to the film in their exaggeration of personality traits, visually filling in details about the characters that then were unnecessary to depict in narrative. This emphasis on personalities recalls Vladimir Sorokin’s play Dostoevsky-Trip (1997), in which characters take literary drugs and transform into extreme versions of Dostoevsky’s characters, ultimately acting out Nastasia Filippovna’s birthday party scene. Indeed, Sarnet mentions the play as a source for his artistic vision in a recent interview.

idiot The viewer comes away with a cohesive understanding of The Idiot’s major questions and Dostoevsky’s attempts to answer them, particularly the nature of good and evil. The novel is knotty and cloudy, and so too is this adaptation, but intentionally so. As in the novel, Myshkin struggles as a wholly good man in a world where bad things happen more often than not, where cruelty and death triumph. We see his struggles here—but we also understand them in his silences, his kind gaze on others, and his reactions during the key tableaux. One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Myshkin lies recovering from an epileptic fit and the camera spends long moments on him in bed.
idiot No words accompany this image, which closely resembles Holbein the Younger’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-1522).

idiotIppolit’s violent existential crisis also seems to emerge both logically—out of the overwhelming ideas with which the work has been grappling all along—and suddenly, as out of nowhere. However, its resolution makes sense not because of the lines Ippolit utters (although these are taken directly from the novel), but through the excellent ensemble acting of those present, the cinematography, and the atmosphere produced by the cathedral setting and the props used in the invalid’s bedchamber. Similarly, more ambiguous characters that are driven by moral and existential concerns such as Nastasia Filippovna and Aglaia are as much defined by their settings as by their words. Indeed, as all of these episodes show, this film conveys its message through actions and atmosphere; perhaps, for this reason, its trailer uses no words at all. Remarkably, but perhaps not surprisingly, Dostoevsky’s novel in this predominately visual interpretation proves both relevant and powerful. Furthermore, Sarnet’s script accommodates both Dostoevsky’s humor and his tragic bent; frequent silences add cruelly amusing awkwardness to social encounters and authentic-feeling pathos to existential crises.

idiotI watched Idiot the same week I saw Joe Wright’s much-publicized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (novel 1877, film 2012) and was struck by the films’ different approaches to their respective novels. Wright’s blockbuster laboriously tries to impart to the viewer Tolstoy’s moral philosophies about love, work, and life, relying on a linear plot. Although Wright’s film does evince a great deal of thought, especially in his use of theatricality, his lavish production lands far from Tolstoy’s vision. Sarnet’s Idiot takes on an arguably less cohesive novel and manages to impart its ideas without significant reliance on a page-by-page narrative.

At times dark and gritty, at times transcendent, Sarnet’s sophisticated yet understated film proves riveting. Although watching a film and reading a novel are inherently different experiences, Sarnet’s Idiot manages to capture the essence of Dostoevsky’s Idiot, an impressive and brilliant feat. However, the film also stands as a thought-provoking and moving piece in its own right. If this is representative of the new Estonian cinema, we should all keep our eye on Estonia.

Katherine Bowers
University of Cambridge

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Works Cited

"Estonian Cinema." Cambridge Film Festival.

Tammi, Eero. "Idioodi Analüüs." Rev. of Idioot. La Strada KINOLEHT 7 Nov. 2011. 

Idioot Treiler. Dir. Rainer Sarnet. Vimeo.

Idioot, Estonia, 2011
Color, 132 minutes
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Writer: Rainer Sarnet
Composer: Ülo Krigul
Cinematographer: Mart Taniel
Cast: Risto Kübar, Katariina Unt, Tambet Tuisk, Ragne Veensalu, Kaido Vermäe, Juhan Ulfsak, Roman Baskin, Taavi Eelmaa
Producer: Katrin Kissa
Homeless Bob Productions

Rainer Sarnet: The Idiot (Idioot, 2011)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2013