Issue 70 (2020)

Andrei Konchalovsky: Sin (Il peccato/Grekh, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2020

sin A peasant is tilling the field, churning out the heavy soil with his plow. A pair of feet in tattered sandals are hastily moving along a dusty road. The camera follows the traveler, tightly focused on the back of his shaggy head. As he rants, cursing the unfaithful, fickle Florence, the echo carries his complaints across the Tuscan hills. The peasant looks up in apparent bemusement at the strange man. Cut to reveal the endless landscape merging with the sky somewhere beyond the hazy horizon. The figure of the traveler is but a speck on the face of this sprawling universe. This is our first introduction to the impish protagonist of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Sin, the divine Michelangelo Buonarroti (Alberto Testone).

The early scenes of the film suggest the central idea of Konchalovsky’s oeuvre of the latter years. The last four films made by one of the oldest working directors in Russian cinema—The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’iona Triapitsyna, 2014), Paradise (Rai, 2016), Sin, and the recently premiered Dear Comrades! (Dorogie tovarishchi!, 2020)—all aim to achieve an almost documentary representation of an era. He may try to achieve it by almost round-the-clock filming of the characters, like in The Postman’s White Nights. Or, like in Paradise and Dear Comrades!, both shot in black and white in 4:3 ratio, the choice of color, according to the director, signifies authenticity of representation. During the press-conference before the premiere of Dear Comrades! at the Venice Film Festival, Konchalovsky explained his choices: “From mid-19th and until mid-20th century, images were in black-and-white. It would have been strange to make a film about the war, or about the ‘60s [...] in color. Color films came later. This must be a document and all documents are black-and-white. This is a film as a document.” This statement may be debatable—after all, color films appeared long before 1962, when Dear Comrades! takes place. However, the idea is clear: in order to convincingly represent a time in history, the image should seem authentic to that time. Konchalovsky goes even further: he often says that he is trying to “convey the smell of the epoch”. Ultimately, the goal is to create a film that can be considered a document of the time, the people, and the environment.

The period depicted in Sin, Italian Renaissance, has been richly represented in art and literature. Michelangelo himself was one of the most celebrated artists during his lifetime; his days and times were extensively documented. Konchalovsky models the film after already existing representations to create a world that is very different from the gilded artificiality of a historical drama, such as TV series The Borgias (2011) and Medici (2016-2019).

sin All but a few scenes (the Sistine Chapel being one of the exceptions) were shot on location in order to strengthen the sense of historical authenticity. All notable landmarks—Palazzo Vecchio and the statue of David, the streets of Rome and Florence, the Apuan Alps, and the Castle of Fosdinovo, the place of Dante’s exile—make an appearance. The Italian spoken in the film is rich with local dialects.  Unknown, but memorable faces fill the screen. The actors playing historical figures, including Michelangelo, were chosen and enhanced with makeup to achieve a portrait-like resemblance. Alberto Testone’s dramatically lined face, with a broken nose and a scraggly beard, closely resembles the portrait by Daniele da Volterra. The 4:3 ratio frames the screen as if it is a Renaissance painting. The narrative itself alludes to dream vision literature of the time. Where Dante was led by the ghost of Virgil, Michelangelo seeks the ghost of Dante. He is haunted by paranoia, fears of betrayal, and poisoning, tormented by visions of the devil and  angels.

Michelangelo, as envisioned by Konchalovsky, is a hustler as much as he is an artist. He lies, betrays, and sins, as he plots his way through the increasing and conflicting demands of two powerful families: the Della Rovere and the Medici. His diminutive figure shrinks even smaller when he tries to hide—crouching in dark corners—from the demands on his art and time, from the daily responsibilities and the nightmares.

His work on the Sistine Chapel made Michelangelo sick, and yet another ambitious project was waiting. With its 40 planned statues, the tomb of Pope Julius has become a money pit for the Della Rovere family. Nearing the end of his days, the Pope comes to examine the work, only to discover the sculptor obsessively polishing the perfectly sculpted knee of Moses protruding from the rough marble mass. After Julius II’s death, the Vatican seat and power are seized by the Medicis, who are not so keen on the project. The new Pope, Leo X, pressures Michelangelo to abandon the tomb and turn his attention to the facade of the Basilica di San Lorenzo.

The task will require the best marble and a lot of it. Michelangelo travels to Carrara where he has long-established ties with the quarrymen. In searching for the perfect material he comes upon the other hero in the story: Il Mostro, The Monster, a giant block of pristine marble.

Against the quarrymen’s warnings, Michelangelo insists that the block remain intact.

sin Staged to be historically accurate, the transport of Il Mostro becomes the pivotal scene in the film. Il Mostro hulks,seemingly unmovable, over the landscape. As they fasten the ropes around the stone, Michelangelo and the workers are dwarfed by its size. The camera’s focus then shifts to the quarrymen moving the mass. It is a complex and suspenseful episode that lasts about 15 minutes. The ropes threaten to break the bearings. The quarrymen strain with effort; dust covers their bodies, making them almost as white as the marble. The foreman’s orders and curses mix with the rumbling of the crowd below. The square frame seems to strain under the enormity of the effort.

Suddenly a disaster strikes: shoddily done bearings break and the sled carrying Il Mostro crushes one of the young workers. Michelangelo’s relationship with the Carrarini suffers another blow after he decides to source the marble from the Pietrasanta quarries, which belong to the Medicis. Soon after the imagined threats, the paranoia, and the demonic visions that haunted Michelangelo throughout the film are actualized in an even greater tragedy for which Michelangelo himself is indirectly responsible.

As he looks upon the bloody aftermath, Dante finally appears to him. “You came,”—whispers Michelangelo—“I asked, and you came.” Dante, draped in red, remains silent as Michelangelo confesses his greatest sin: “I thought I was moving toward God, like you, but instead I was moving away, more and more.” He talks about his art: too earthly to be used for prayer. “Tell me what to do?!” Walking away into the darkness of a cavern, Dante finally speaks: “Listen.” The music swells and as Michelangelo turns to behold the soaring mountains, the clouds, the sky, the earthly world itself, he laughs in joyful understanding.

The film leaves its hero where it first found him. Michelangelo is proudly carrying a scale model of St. Peter’s Cathedral, as the film closes with black-and-white close-ups of the artist’s most significant work.

In its quest to capture the essence of a specific time, Sin mostly disregards the finer details of Michelangelo’s life timeline. It freely strings together fictional episodes and real events, noting the locations, but not the years. Konchalovsky, probably correctly, assumes that his audience is well familiar with the textbook examples of Michelangelo’s art but less so with his life. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David, Moses with his knee—all these masterpieces remain, however omnipresent, on the margins. Obscured, they still loom over their creator as a constant reminder of the burden that is his gift. 

According to the director, Sin is not about the act of creation itself. It is about those infamous scraps from which “poems are born—without shame” (Anna Akhmatova): the profane realities of the beautiful and bloody epoch that produced Michelangelo’s divine art. In doing so, the film may eschew the historical precision of dates. Instead, it pursues the accuracy of textures, faces, and even scent. The streets of Florence and Rome in the film are dirty, covered in debris and excrement, bustling with human activity. The quarry workers are wearing ragged garments, made white by the marble dust, and banter loudly in the local dialect.

sin However, their burly bodies easily arrange themselves into a composition ready to be captured in paint or marble. It is no wonder that the film’s hero is often lost in observation: the models for his art are everywhere. Every shot is composed with precision and is unabashedly picturesque. In the low light of chiaroscuro, the scenes are rich with internal movement, detail, and texture; many use natural light. As Marquess Malaspina guides Michelangelo to Dante’s former sanctuary, the candlelight that illuminates the scene is as authentic as the chamber’s bed. The cast wears costumes that are properly soiled and distressed to reflect wear. Chickens, children, and kittens wander into the frame with perfect idiosyncrasy.

In interviews, Konchalovsky often repeats the same statement of artistic intent: “I don’t want to see beautiful portraits in the frame. I want to see people in dirty clothes soaked in sweat and dust. The smell should penetrate the screen and reach the audience, for this is what the Renaissance really was” (Pervyi kanal 2019). Those who have read the director’s autobiographical book, Low Truths, will find this statement somewhat familiar. Writing about working on Andrei Rublev (1966), Konchalovsky (1998) says:

Tarkovsky and I grew up under the banner of rejection of much that existed in the cinema. [...]The main truth is in the texture: it must be shown that everything is genuine - stone, sand, sweat, cracks in the wall. There should be no makeup, the plaster that hides the living texture of the skin. Costumes must be wrinkled, unwashed. We did not recognize Hollywood or, what was equal for us, Stalinist aesthetics.

sinAt 83, the director still frames his approach to filmmaking as a rebellion. This time it is not the “big style” of high Stalinism or classical Hollywood: in recent years, Konchalovsky led a very public crusade against lowbrow modern culture, popular genre movies, and casual moviegoing. In interviews he laments the inferior tastes of today’s audiences. “I pity [popcorn-munching viewers of Hollywood blockbusters] because they don’t know other kinds of pleasure. But I’ll ask people to come to screenings without popcorn. [Sin] is a very quiet film” (Kozlov 2019)—repeats Konchalovsky, yet again in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. He made the same request during the press screenings for his previous films, as well.

As an auteur, Konchalovsky often expresses nostalgia for the high art of film represented by the Italian neorealist cinema’s greats, as well as Fellini, Pasolini, and Bergman. Ten years ago, during our interview for mubi.com, he confessed: “The audience that I want to have, my audience, is dead. I don’t have that audience anymore, the audience of Fellini and Bergman. It was a reading audience, the educated literary audience. Today, the audience reads much less, and when they read, it’s different: they don’t read novels, they read on the Internet. It’s a different generation, and I need to talk to them to find a different way to do it. This is not the language that I was learning for 20-30 years.” At the time, the director was working on The Nutcracker 3D, a special effects extravaganza that ultimately flopped.

The director’s next film, The Postman’s White Nights, marked a new chapter in Konchalovsky’s biography. The story of a dying rural community in Northern Russia is steeped in romantic realism that defined Konchalovsky’s early film The Story of Asya Klyachina (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, 1966) and its more recent sequel Ryaba, My Chicken (Kurochka Riaba, 1994). Like in 1966, the film crew was embedded with the local population of Kositsino, a village by the Kenozero lake. To shoot the film, Konchalovsky turned to the cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov, known for his work with Aleksei Balabanov. The dream-like pacing and cinéma vérité parable style that defined The Stocker (Kochegar, 2010) and Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012),combined with Konchalovsky’s sure-handed direction, produce an exquisite result. The achingly beautiful lake, gently disturbed by the wake of the postman’s boat, and rolling hills, wrapped in the iridescent lace of pre-dawn fog, are counterpoised with the stark texture of the weather-beaten, deeply lined faces of the almost entirely amateur local cast. A sense of the surreal penetrates the film. It seems to be a part of the characters’ daily routine. Dmitrii Bykov praised the magical realism of the film: “The author was compelled to show that the chthonic deities of the old exist in close proximity to today’s forgotten villages. Everything is close by and without contradiction - mysticism, space rocket, family shows on Channel One. Together, it all adds up to a mystery play of a hidden, rural lonely life. It’s a Russian One Hundred Years of Solitude, theMacondo of the Arkhangelsk region, stuck in the 15th century despite all the engines and gadgets” (Bykov 2014). In mixing the legacy of cinéma vérité with magic realism, Konchalovsky delivered a work of drastic creative honesty and vulnerability.

Sin, too, is shot with a mostly local cast, including non-professional actors and extras from Carrara. The filmmakers used six cameras to capture unexpected candid moments and depict the action from a presumably objective perspective. In the documentary, The Making of “Sin” (2019), the cinematographer Simonov describes the method either as “mosaic” or “a puzzle” where “piece by piece the picture of the world is put together” (ASKonchalovsky 2019). This world is meant to evade any apparent references to the works of Renaissance artists. Yet minimal camera movement and the elaborately staged deep space composition force each shot to be viewed both as a film scene and as a tableau vivant.

The authenticity of location, too, is turning to artifice when a Florentine alley dead-ends into a digital backdrop. The effect is especially glaring in the scenes inside the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel interior was constructed on a soundstage and enhanced with CGI to demonstrate the scale and add dimension. The painted ceiling clashes with graphics making even the scaffolding look unconvincing and hastily drawn like a theatrical set.

The film is at its strongest when the action moves into the Apuan Alps. It becomes more visually compelling and dynamic thanks to the surrounding mountains’ intense presence and the local cast of quarry workers. In the original Italian language version, the dialect of the workers, their banter is used to achieve an effect of polyphony and deepen the sense of a tight-knit community. Unfortunately, in the dubbed version of the Russian release with voice actors delivers an overwrought and unconvincing performance, more commonly expected from a TV import.

sin Konchalovsky intends to disrupt the stasis of artifice, to challenge the traditional costume drama by looking for “truth is in the texture.” However, Sin is very different from Andrei Rublev, and The Bell episode from which Sin takes a lot of inspiration. Where The Bell is minimalistic and raw in its depiction of “stone, sand, sweat, cracks in the wall”, Sin is meticulous in recreating the already well-illustrated appearance of texture. Partially it has to do with Konchalovsky’s often expressed aversion to modernity, as he perceives himself as a keeper of the traditional values of auteur cinema. While he looks for inspiration in his past work, like Andrei Rublev and Asya Klyachina, or echoes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Mathew (1964) and The Decameron (1971), ultimately,the filmmaker falls short, ending up closer to the enlightened conservatism of his brother (as outlined in his book; Mikhalkov 2017) than to the cinematic rebellion of the ’60s. He accepts the art of the era as a documented fact; a mosquito suspended in amber from which he attempts to extract DNA to build the reality of Michelangelo’s life on-screen. The result carries as much authenticity as a diorama in a museum.

At the time of this review’s completion Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! received the Venice Film Festival’s special jury prize. The early reviews praise the film’s stunning clarity and its stark precision. “Meticulous and majestic, epic in scope and tattoo-needle intimate in effect” (Kiang 2020) says Variety about Konchalovsky’s depiction of the tragic events in Novocherkassk in 1962.

The director used the same approach to tell the story of the deadly suppression of a workers’ strike as he did in the previous films: the black-and-white cinematography that intends to evoke the imagery of the times, the traditional 4:3 frame filled with the details of the era, local extras, and memorable, meaningful faces. Perhaps what makes Dear Comrades! so poignant and genuine, aside from Konchalovsky’s mastery, is the power of the real-life context of the protests across Europe, the United States, and in Belarus. The smell of the era is drifting into the theater from the streets.

Anna Nieman
Cheshire, CT

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Works Cited

ASKonchalovsky. 2019. “Kak snimali ‘Grekh’ Konchalovskogo. Fil’m o fil’me.” YouTube 20 December.

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2014. “Konchalovskii, Shekspir i Triapitsyn.” Novaia gazeta, 15 March.

Kiang, Jessica. 2020. “Dear Comrades! Review. Andrei Konchalovsky’s Scintillating, Surgical Exposé of Khrushchev-Era Oppression.” Variety 7 September.

Konchalovskii, Andrei. 1998. Nizkie istiny. Moscow: Kollektsiia ‘Sovershenno sekretno’. Quoted from the online version.

Kozlov, Vladimir. 2019. “Andrei Konchalovsky Wants People to Attend His Film’s Screenings ‘Without Popcorn’.” The Hollywood Reporter. 27 October.

Mikhalkov, Nikita. 2017. Pravo i pravda. Manifest prosveschennogo konservatizma. Moscow: Eksmo.
 
Pervyi kanal. 2019. “Konchalovsky razrushil poddel’nuiu vselennuiu epokhi Vozrozhdeniia, izobretennuiu kino i serialami. Piat’ interesnykh faktov o fil‘me “Grekh”. Editorial feature. 6 November.


Sin (Il Peccato). Russia, Italy. 2019.
Color, 136 min.
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Producers: Alisher Usmanov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Elda Ferri, et al.
Cinematography: Alexandr Simonov
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Art Direction: Maurizio Sabatini
Costume Design: Dmitriy Andreev
Cast: Alberto Testone, Jakob Diehl, Orso Maria Guerrini, Francesco Gaudiello, Antonio Gargiulo, Simone Toffanin, Federico Vanni, Orso Maria Guerrini, Yuliya Vysotskaya
Production: Production Center of Andrei Konchalovsky, Jean Vigo Italia, in collaboration with Rai Cinema.

Andrei Konchalovsky: Sin (Il peccato/Grekh, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2020

Updated: 2020