Issue 35 (2012)

Vladimir Bortko: Peter the First. The Testament (Petr Pervyi. Zaveshchanie, 2011)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2012

Vladimir Bortko has a rare ability to sense the Zeitgeist and respond to it, beginning with his mildly anti-Soviet Heart of a Dog (Sobach’e serdtse, 1989) that shot him to national fame, and peaking with the distinctly anti-western adaptation of The Idiot (Idiot, 2003) that became a national sensation (even opponents had to admit that the performances of the stellar ensemble were extraordinary). Anticipated with an unhealthy, feverish hype, Bortko’s The Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, 2005) once again impressed viewers with its performances but also, more than the previous pictures, revealed the master’s Achilles heel: his deficiency in free-spirited wit and inventiveness and, as a result, a largely pedestrian handling of his material.

petr pervyBortko never left any doubt that his preferred medium was the large screen, and when the 2009 Gogol anniversary offered the opportunity, he delivered a powerful if somewhat heavy-handed Taras Bulba. His latest film, the made-for-TV four-part Peter the First: The Testament, shares with Bortko’s previous works a meticulous approach to mise-en-scène, a dramatic script, an outstanding cast uniformly giving excellent performances, and a gripping musical score—all of it evidence of the filmmaker’s consistently high degree of professionalism. Bortko’s Peter the First is superior to the 1986 U.S. mini-series starring Maximilian Schell. However, compared to its best remembered predecessor, Vladimir Petrov’s legendary two-part Peter the First (1937-39), it lacks one important element: passion.

petr pervyThe screenplay was ably adapted by the director and Viktor Afanas’ev from Daniil Granin’s novella, Evenings with Peter the Great. At its center is a little known episode from the tsar’s last years, involving his love affair with Moldovan princess Maria Kantemir (or Cantemir). Granin conceptualized Maria, the daughter of Dmitrii Kantemir, as an unusually educated and emancipated young woman who prefers libraries to court functions and who dreams of loving and marrying an intellectual equal whom she can respect as a true partner. Meanwhile the ailing Peter, tormented by kidney stones as much as by scheming courtiers, desperately needs a male heir. Otherwise, he fears, the powerful Russian state molded by him in blood and sweat will be torn apart by his shortsighted former collaborators, first and foremost Prince Aleksandr Menshikov and Count Peter Tolstoi. Peter’s wife, Ekaterina, is the only one who knows with certainty that Peter’s illnesses are incurable and that his days are numbered. The schemers seek to maintain their influence under Ekaterina if she succeeds her husband and hope that she will protect them from the wrath of Peter’s grandson, Petr Alekseevich, who is expected to revenge his father’s death (which was precisely what he did after Ekaterina’s own passing). Nonetheless, Peter’s minions also help the tsar in identifying a woman who could bear him a son, and Maria Kantemir seems to be the best candidate. Despite the thirty year age difference, Maria, after initial resistance, acquiesces and eventually develops genuine feelings for the larger-than-life gosudar’. He, in turn, proves his prowess and impregnates her—but then Ekaterina’s henchmen instigate a miscarriage. At the end, Peter dies in horrible pain and without a male heir.

petr pervyGranin’s story is not firmly corroborated by established facts (conspicuously, the film does not list the usual “historical consultants” in its credits). Yet, Bortko’s film is not a scholarly treatise, and Granin’s idea—belonging more to the currently popular genre of “alternative history” than to serious historical fiction—makes for a good yarn. As soon as the viewer is hooked on the court intrigue about Peter’s potential heir, the film’s entire four hours go by quite fast; indeed, Bortko tells the story without major digressions or slow interludes. A profound implicit message, however, lies beneath the simple plot. It is the problem of Russian statehood and the conditions of its continuity (whereas its legitimacy is never questioned). Peter embodied both the potential and the vulnerability of statehood like few others—interestingly, the awareness of the crucial role of a ruler’s personality is an essential common element of Bortko’s portrayal and Petrov’s quasi-Stalinist treatment. Appropriately, Bortko’s film opens with a scene in the imperial torture chamber where a high-ranking corrupt official is forced to admit his bribery. Peter, frustrated by his chronic inability to root out the problem, exclaims: “Why don’t the Germans take bribes, why don’t the Dutch—and why do the Russians?” His fight against corruption is merciless, yet even his closest allies are fallible to the temptations of riches.

petr pervyBortko captures the sad final days of a self-proclaimed mega-reformer but leaves out what exactly he was reforming, perhaps because the major acts of renewing a civilization were already behind him. Still, the constructive side of Peter’s rule receives much less attention than his authoritarian behavior and speechifying, involuntarily suggesting the conclusion that just acting violently is insufficient either for improving a country or for state-building. As a matter of fact, reducing Peter’s activities to endless interrogations and executions supports precisely what his opponents had been accusing him of all along: that his rule was more tyrannical than enlightened. The Russian people in whose name all the drastic deeds are done appear rarely if at all. While authentic depictions of the crowd mentality were an undeniable strength of Petrov’s earlier picture, Bortko focuses on court infighting, except in one graphic episode in the bathhouse when a peasant uses a folk remedy to cure the emperor of a huge kidney stone. This is not to argue for equal sociological representation of all strata in a historical film—rather, it seems that Peter’s political style prominently implied the principle of meritocracy which should have been guarded by his successors and rarely was. Bortko’s film instead emphasizes Peter’s insistence on his absolute power which is shown as an indispensable part of successful rule.

Further developing Granin’s admittedly original but highly speculative hypothesis, Bortko’s film suggests that after Maria lost Peter’s child, the anointment of her brother Antiokh Kantemir as the future tsar was a realistic option that filled the courtiers with panic. Indeed, that would have elevated one of the most advanced minds of his time to the throne of Russia—in other words, it would have installed an intellectual in power. Such wishful thinking was characteristic of the Enlightenment and echoed by the soviet shestidesiatniki, but Granin and Bortko, arguing from a post-communist perspective, should really know better. (It must be added that Antiokh at the time of Peter’s agony was already 17 and not the boy shown in the film).

petr pervyAll these critical objections are not to diminish Bortko’s genuine achievements, of which there are many. The film’s cast is first-rate, and the director has elicited convincing performances throughout. Aleksandr Baluev’s usual mix of wooden and hammy here proves advantageous, giving the tsar tragic gravitas and grandeur. His right hand Menshikov is brilliantly portrayed by Sergei Makovetskii as a sleezy, two-faced opportunist, while Aleksandr Filippenko creates a pathetic Petr Tolstoi indulging in pathos-filled pomposity. Irina Rozanova’s Ekaterina subtly displays a rich spectrum of hidden emotions, from cold calculation to pride and cowardice. A particular accomplishment is Mikhail Boiarskii’s Prince Kantemir—this actor has matured over the years from youth idol to first-rate character actor whose performances even in supporting roles convey deep, restrained, energy. Boiarskii’s real-life daughter Elizaveta, who recently has been the target of malicious media disdain, acquits herself well in the role of Maria Kantemir, combining the ambition of a modern young woman with erotic self-confidence and occasional tenderness. These major characters are surrounded by a large number of memorable supporting performers, of whom Konstantin Vorob’ev as the treasonous physician Palitula and Maksim Radugin as Ekaterina’s hapless lover Willem Mons deserve special mention.

According to interviews that Bortko gave prior to the film’s premiere, he sincerely believes in legitimate authoritarian statehood as the only model that works for Russia. He certainly shares this view with numerous other Russian intellectuals past and present, including some former dissidents. In Peter the First. The Testament, Bortko uses a bold move to illustrate this conviction at the end of his picture: when Peter’s collaborators carry the open casket with the dead tsar in 1725, their procession continues into modern-day St. Petersburg with its streetlights and endless lines of cars. Thus, the testament of the film’s title makes its way into contemporary Russia, as if to remind today’s citizens to not squander what the great ruler left them three hundred years ago. Such a direct, pathos-filled appeal is not fully consistent with the film’s atmosphere. But this ending leaves no doubt about how Vladimir Bortko, and those who financed his film, interpret Peter the First’s relevance for today’s Russia, namely, as an endorsement of enlightened authoritarianism. 

Peter Rollberg
The George Washington University

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Peter the First. The Testament. Russia, 2011
4 series, Rossiya Television
Director: Vladimir Bortko
Script: Igor’ Afanas’ev, Daniil Granin
DoP: Elena Ivanova
Composer: Vladimir Dashkevich
Cast: Aleksandr Baluev, Sergei Makovetskii, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Mikhail Boiarskii, Anna Koval’chuk, Irina Rozanova, Sergei Shakurov, Aleksandr Filippenko
Producer: Vladimir Bortko

Vladimir Bortko: Peter the First. The Testament (Petr Pervyi. Zaveshchanie, 2011)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2012

Updated: 12 Jan 12