Petro Pinchuk and Ievhen Berezniak: The Song of Taras Bulba (Duma pro Tarasa Bul'bu, 2009)

reviewed by Lesya Prokopenko© 2009

bulbaThe year 2009 was eagerly awaited as the 200th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol, who is truly a controversial figure for today’s Ukrainian-Russian cultural discussions and identity-building processes. It is really symptomatic, however, that Gogol’s arguably most controversial text, Taras Bulba, was simultaneously chosen as the focus of cinematic celebration of the writer’s jubilee in both post-Soviet countries. This text had been created in the context of early Romanticism in the Russian Empire, with an aesthetic interest in—and a sentimental treatment of—history, folklore, and local traditions. In the contemporary situation, the whole idea of Taras Bulba, with its almost epic intentions, can be interpreted either nostalgically, with some reflexive distancing, or literally, becoming quite a dangerous ideological project. Therefore, putting the story on screen makes the director responsible for reproduction of a certain cultural politics. While in Russia Gogol’s anniversary was commemorated with an expensive blockbuster by a Communist Party member, Vladimir Bortko (Taras Bulba, 2009), Ukrainians have filmed a modest, homey, and sleepy version (The Poem of Taras Bulba, 2009).

bulbaThe film was a debut in cinema for Petro Pinchuk and Ievhen Berezniak, and thus both theatrical and advertizing visual influences can be clearly observed in it. The larger extent of the film is devoted to non-action and out-of-plot parts, like landscapes, comic and festive scenes including ethnic Ukrainian costumes and furniture (from various epochs and regions actually), a lot of “poetic” and symbolic pieces (for instance, a ghostly kobza-player that appears several times during the film). These mythological clichéd episodes are of decorative texture and often look like book illustrations in a nineteenth-century tradition—or like masterfully managed museum installations, being probably, though sadly, the only aesthetically strong aspect in The Song of Taras Bulba.

bulbaAs noted above, the film, being based on an actual play, has many theatrical features. The dialogues keep a great deal of mechanical and amateur dramatic pathos, not quite characteristic of contemporary cinematography. What it keeps from the literary source is the plot itself, which is well known and almost archetypal. Taras Bulba, the old Cossack (played by Mykhailo Holubovych), has two sons, Ostap and Andriy, who return home from their studies. Reminiscing of old war times, Bulba decides to take them to the Sich, the military Cossack community on the Khortytsia Island on the Dnieper River. By the time the father and sons arrive at Sich, the news of Polish offensive actions against church and people come there. Bulba leads the Cossacks to Polish lands, where they besiege a town. By coincidence, a Polish lady with whom Andriy had fallen in love, suffers from hunger in the town under siege. Andriy sneaks inside and meets her, and after that switches the Polish side. Eventually Taras Bulba finds out about his son’s betrayal and shoots him. The elder son, Ostap, is later killed by Poles. In the end, the enemies take hold of the old Taras Bulba, and he dies in a fire while delivering a patriotic speech.

bulbaDespite the presence of the dominant violent scheme, all the dramatically exaggerated dialogues and gestures smoothen the sharp edges of national and religious themes, and add to the film’s romantic fictiveness. Even the scene of Andriy’s death is altered and prolonged. In The Song Taras embraces Andriy in a fatherly fashion and then shoots him in the stomach. At this point Andriy has a vision of past moments and loved faces—the narrative closely repeated in the final scene of Taras’s death. Similarly, when Ostap dies and calls for his father, Taras’s reply comes muffled through the clouds of mist. Such dream-like episodes (that actually are largely a result of the low budget and the need to trim poorly executed battle scenes) dominate the visual atmosphere and, consequently, are in charge of the way the national idea is presented. The sentimental nostalgia of cinematic bits and pieces (instead of a linear plot advancing) exposes something already lost, though constructive for a moderate, almost useless historical myth. This is reminiscent of Derrida’s idea of nostalgia as a circular occurrence, as a pain for things lost, yet reappearing (see Derrida 1992).

bulbaIn a way, The Song of Taras Bulba is similar to a well-known anecdote discussed in one of Slavoj Žižek’s books (see Žižek 2006), in which New Zealand natives make up a dance one night to demonstrate it to an anthropological expedition. The performance is a response to a request, not a self-existing actuality. Similarly, the film under review consists of pastoral, cheap pseudo-ethnographic pictures without any pretence to being realistic. And, obviously, this is by no means an artistic move, but quite a constrained way to create a visual sequence with given skills and equipment: to make an action film with eight horses, a handful of professional actors, and limited private funding. These harsh circumstances generate even more noticeable visual representations of certain favored strategies for dealing with history and national idea. There is a long-lasting scene of Taras Bulba showing the Sich to his sons, like a guide in a museum. The Cossacks, meanwhile, are dancing and fighting or lying on the ground in picturesque poses. In such a way it can be seen how the film characters themselves are the beholders of an “anthropologist’s view.” The brothers take part in certain rituals under the guidance of Taras, who gives awkward comments like “And now, say good-bye to your mother.” At this moment the camera shows various pottery pieces on the shelves in their house, the icons of Jesus and Virgin Mary on the walls—these things, due to the way of exposure, look like museum objects rather than parts of everyday life. Moreover, the faux atmosphere is maintained with unremarkable, but numerous out-of-place elements—like a stainless steel kitchen knife the Cossacks throw at a tree, or a wooden “wall” around the besieged city that is barely of an average human height.

bulbaThe Song of Taras Bulba, unlike the original story by Gogol, also incorporates a large number of female characters who aren’t necessarily totally secondary next to the male warrior community of Cossacks. Their position in the film is quite ambivalent: on the one hand, Bulba is constantly touching some girls who serve food and run away with laughter; on the other hand, there are independent and powerful women, like Bulba’s wife, or the Polish lady, who make men look almost passive in comparison. At any rate, this situation is completely different from the original text, where female characters are pretty much absent, except for the demonic image of the Pole who causes Andriy’s death. Taking into account this distinctive feature of Gogol’s narration about the heroic military world that excludes women, the film’s dissimilarity becomes more evident. Bulba’s wife is a really strongly outlined character, even in terms of her detailed and complicated costume, while male characters wear random Cossack clothing that does not match the same historical period (supposedly, around the sixteenth century). In the film, she grieves over her sons’ departure, making the whole fatal military adventure also a substantially family event. Andriy appears to be strongly attached to his mother, and their pathos-charged relationship is shown in many episodes. His courtly affair with a Polish noble girl constitutes another leading line in the film. It is obvious, too, that her role of an object is largely eclipsed by the role of the one who starts and then encourages this love story.

bulbaIn the scene of Andriy’s memories/fantasies, he falls into a muddy ditch after a Polish horseman strikes him in the street, and the lady begins to laugh loudly, drawing his attention to herself. Another episode of Andriy’s recollections, mixed (or replaced) with imagination, shows the lady bathing, with a half-naked Ukrainian girl-servant pouring water on her. The Polish lady stares enigmatically into the camera, though it is impossible to understand how Andriy could have been the observer of this scene. Together with images of his mother embracing him, the girl’s gaze appears as one of the visions Andriy gets before death.

Another aspect of the film’s action that cannot go unnoticed is alcohol consumption by the Cossacks. It often becomes almost absurd in its repetitiveness. A man with a bottle of liquor appears after every official event, like the admission of a newcomer, or the elections of a new leader. On the one hand, it replaces or adds to some important binds within a military community; but on the other, it simply exaggerates an already overused Slavic cliché, which, when applied as a self-description, is supposed here to provide a humorous edge to the film.

bulbaSpeaking of humor, we need to say that The Song predominantly uses the same old scheme of self-mocking rustic scenes. The film starts with an episode describing the life in the village where Bulba’s family dwells. The local idiot mocked by the blacksmith; village drunkards trying to catch a piglet; girls who dry linen on the grass, with their skirts pinned up and legs showing—all this imagery seems supposedly inventive, but really it takes away from the film’s poetic idea. This non-matching is neither an ironic gesture by the director, nor it can possibly be ignored as a tasteless attempt to make the picture more vivid. For a made-for-television film like this one, the patriotic poeticism and the vulgar humor are, indeed, the phenomena of one order of representation. They both work in terms of the enduring ideology of “the national,” which is which is present in both pathos and laughter—a kind of “uneasy” pathos and laughter to be precise. The Song of Taras Bulba is as spontaneous a product as it could be. It is neither serious and heroic, nor a rustic comedy, but rather a failing ideological product.

To sum up, The Song of Taras Bulba is a less known, but, probably, a more vivid representation of the Zeitgeist as such, not to be taken critically as an instance of art cinema or a potential blockbuster. And this is precisely what makes it interesting to watch in order to understand contemporary Ukraine—by means of a screen adaptation of a historical novel.

Lesya Prokopenko, Kyiv

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time, trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

The Song of Taras Bulba, Ukraine, 2009
Color, 68 min.
Directors: Petro Pinchuk, Ievhen Berezniak
Script: Ievhen Berezniak, Leonid Toma
Cast: Mykhailo Holubovych, Anton Popudrenko, Roman Hryn', Nina Shynkaruk, Natalia Zubyk
Production: Gold Production, Mark & Peter


Petro Pinchuk and Ievhen Berezniak: The Song of Taras Bulba (Duma pro Tarasa Bul'bu, 2009)

reviewed by Lesya Prokopenko© 2009