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

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2004

 

The title of the film quotes the phrase with which Emperor Paul, played by Viktor Sukhorukov, once heard himself addressed by his great-grandfather, Peter I, in a hallucinatory vision. It expresses the remorse and self-pity that Paul feels on the eve of his assassination by imperial guards. At the same time, it alludes to the bequest that the founder of Russiaís 18th century left for his heirs and it serves thematically to unite the three films of Vitalii Mel'nikovís historical trilogy, which include The Royal Hunt (1990) and Tsarevich Alexei (1997). Paul is portrayed to a certain extent as a victim and the intellectual appeal of the film is in deciphering the particular workings of palace politics and the degree to which blame can be placed directly upon Paul for the tragedy of his brief reign.

The film is symptomatic of post-Soviet Russiaís tendency to humanize the rulers of Imperial Russia, as can be seen most clearly in the rehabilitation of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Paul is portrayed as a man who suffered under the long reign of his mother, Catherine II, during which he was forced to spend the prime years of his life shut out of state affairs. He continues to suffer as he struggles to impose his will upon the immovable object that is the Russian Empire. Although his behavior often approaches the limit of what might be considered normal for an adult, at no point does he appear before us as a madman. The portrayal of a man whose sanity hangs by a thread that might snap at any moment is a difficult task, but one that Sukhorukov manages with great skill. Mel'nikovís decision to cast this particular actor in the role of Paul was perhaps a more fateful one than he realized. As portrayed by Sukhorukov, Paul shows none of the tendencies toward despotism that might have been expected (and were demonstrated so well by the actor in his first major movie role, that of the proto-fascist Viktor in Iurii Maminís Sideburns). Nor does this Tsar, even in his toughest moments, manifest the kind of cold-hearted indifference to violence and suffering that we saw portrayed in Aleksei Balabanovís two Brother films. Paulís one allusion to himself as "a freak" is soon forgotten, thus suggesting but then dropping the theme of another one of Sukhorukovís well-known portrayals (Balabanovís Of Freaks and Men). Paul is almost but never quite "over the top," and thus falls short of what many viewers might expect from this particular actor. Perhaps this serves as a psychological factor as critics and film-festival juries have tended to praise the work of veteran actor Oleg Iankovskii while overlooking that of the filmís nominal star.

Count von Pahlen, played by Iankovskii, is the center of intrigue in the film. His quiet machinations lead to an unexpectedly suspenseful climax, in which the viewer is left wondering just where Pahlen stands in a complex web of conspiracy and deception. His own personal motives remain completely in the dark, leaving the viewer with no choice but to conclude that his actions are motivated by nothing other than an almost altruistic desire to do what is best for the State. At several points in the film he declares himself ready to accept full responsibility for the plot should things go wrong, but in the end, he remains almost miraculously without guilt. He never has the chance to use the document he has obtained from Alexander, and when blood is spilled, it is against his explicit orders. He has managed to engineer a palace coup without actively participating in any aspect of its execution.

Perhaps most surprising is the extremely negative portrayal of the future Alexander I. The heir to the throne is a dreamy romantic, no more in touch with reality than his father, utterly dominated by his wife. He is, in short, a figure completely unfit to rule an empire. His promise to grant Russia a constitution and transform the country into a republic is broken in the closing moments of the film, thus guaranteeing continued dissension between ruler and ruled. In this context, Paulís obsession with his miniature models of palaces and cities is more than just a manifestation of his warped mind, but a metaphor for how Russiaís rulers have consistently failed their country and their people. Not since Peter I have any of Russiaís rulers succeeded in bringing their great plans and models for Russiaís reform to fruition. To the extent they have succeeded, they have brought only more misery to the country. Are the watchful eyes and active hands of the State Police the only way to keep the destructive will of the rulers in check? At the beginning of the 21st century, the complacent words of Count Pahlen signal more resignation than hope. Letís wait and see.

Poor, Poor Pavel (Russia, 2003)

Color. 103 min

Director: Vitalii Mel'nikov

Script: Vitalii Mel'nikov

Camera: Sergei Astakhov

With Viktor Sukhorukov, Oleg Iankovskii, Aleksei Barabash

Production: Russia/Lenfilm, with support from the Ministry of Culture


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

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2004

8/04/04