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Vitalii Melnikov: Poor Poor Pavel (Bednyi, bednyi Pavel) (2003)

reviewed by David Gillespie©2004

Based on a 1908 novel by the Symbolist Russian poet and philosopher Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, Melínikovís film tells of the reign of Tsar Pavel I from 1796 to 1801, up to his assassination by disaffected army officers and nobles. Melínikov has proved himself adept at recreating eighteenth-century Russia, having already directed The Tsarís Hunt, about the royal pretender Ekaterina Tarakanova, in 1990, and The Tsarevich Alexei, about Peter Iís son and disgraced heir, in 1997. In purely artistic terms, this is his most accomplished excursion yet into that century, although its somewhat revisionist Ďideologyí leaves some questions unanswered.

It is generally accepted that Pavel was unstable as monarch, with inconsistent policies and a reactionary desire to check republican rhetoric unleashed by the French Revolution. We learn little of these policies in Melínikovís film. Indeed, it is questionable whether Pavel, as played by Balabanov stalwart Viktor Sukhorukov, is unhinged. Certainly he is regarded as insane by those around him, but Sukhorukovís Pavel comes across as more impulsive in his reactions and misguided in his judgments. In this respect he is very different from the childlike imbecile portrayed by Mikhail Ianshin in Alexander Faintsimmerís 1934 film Lieutenant Kizhe. But Melínikov makes Pavel into something of a martyred Tsar, not dissimilar to the portrayal of the doomed Nikolai II in Gleb Panfilovís 2000 film The Romanovs, Crown-Bearing Family. Melínikovís Pavel loves his people, bursting into tears when he sees the suffering of the destitute, he holds the interests of state and the capital St Petersburg before his own personal needs, and talks about modern notions of ruling through trust rather than Russiaís well-worn government through coercion and fear. In this respect the film reflects current Russian nostalgia for a ĎRussia we have lostí, and an autocracy seen as above all benevolent and noble.

Pavelís nemesis is the ruthless and determined Baron (soon to become Count) von Pahlen, played with ice-cold menace by veteran actor Oleg Iankovskii. Von Pahlen delights in intrigues, persuading Pavelís son Alexander, weak and vacillating, to join the conspiracy, and successfully playing off members of the royal family against each other. It remains unclear what von Pahlenís motives are, whether he really engineers Pavelís death for the future prosperity of Russia, or for the extension of his own personal power. At the end of the film it is he who puts the film in its contemporary historical context, as he leaves St Petersburg and bids farewell to the eighteenth century, welcoming the nineteenth, after which will come the twentieth, and thenÖ Ďweíll wait and seeí. In Russia, the future remains as uncertain as the past unfathomable.

Melínikovís film contains two powerful performances from its leads, with impressive support, costumes and sets. Like recent reflections on pre-revolutionary Russian history, such as Panfilovís film, Mikhalkovís Barber of Siberia (1999) and Sokurovís Russian Ark (2002), it is imbued with a neo-conservative longing for what are perceived as past certainties and ĎRussianí values, accompanied by an implied rejection of Western forms of thinking and government. It remains, therefore, a film of its time, exploring not so much the past, as questioning the present.


Vitalii Melnikov: Poor Poor Pavel (Bednyi, bednyi Pavel) (2003)

reviewed by David Gillespie ©2004

8/03/04