Issue 38 (2012)

Pavel Lungin: The Conductor (Dirizher, 2012)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2012

Like all of Lungin’s movies, there is much to admire about The Conductor: the powerful performances by a small cast of theatrical actors, the gorgeous photography, whether of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport at night or the center and environs of Jerusalem by day, and the powerful music of a modern “St. Matthew Passion,” composed in 2006 by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokalamsk.[1] An undeniably serious movie by one of contemporary Russia’s most talented filmmakers, The Conductor is an intense look at a few days of crisis in the lives of several visitors to Jerusalem.

dirizherThe plot is simple: musicians from Moscow travel to Jerusalem to perform a contemporary religious oratorio. On the eve of their departure, the conductor, Petrov (Vladas Bagdonas), a severe and demanding artist who inspires fear and even hatred among his subordinates and seems to have sacrificed all human emotions to his art, learns that his estranged son, then living in Jerusalem, has just committed suicide. Once in Jerusalem, the conductor is overcome with anger, grief and, eventually, guilt at his growing awareness of his complicity in his son’s death: because he disapproved of the bohemian life his son was leading (no steady job, drugs, etc.), he stopped supporting him financially, thereby contributing to his suicide. This plot line climaxes when Petrov sees his son’s final painting, a copy of the famous Hans Holbein the Younger painting in which Petrov’s son has depicted his father in place of the dead Christ in his tomb. This is, of course, the very painting that plays such an important role in Dostoevsky’s Idiot, where its hyper-realistic treatment of a dead body could, in the words of Prince Myshkin, make one lose his faith. Here the painting shocks the already faithless Petrov into recognizing his own failures as a father and his complicity in the death of his son. Meanwhile, a second plot line concerning the marital discord between two of the singers develops as the husband, Sergei (Karen Badalov), flirts with Ol’ga (Dar’ia Moroz), an attractive passenger on the plane, and invites her to the concert. Religion plays an important role in this subplot as well: Sergei’s cloying wife, Alla (Inga Obol’dina) is a fervent Orthodox believer, Sergei is an atheist with no interest in religion, while Ol’ga’s motivations for vacationing at a monastery are a combination of the spiritual and the economic: lodging at the monastery is cheaper than a hotel! The crisis of this plot line occurs when the jealous Alla persuades Ol’ga not to attend the concert. Instead, she wanders around a local market, where she is fatally injured in a suicide bombing. Once she realizes her responsibility for putting Ol’ga in danger, the horrified Alla goes to the hospital, where she is last seen waiting with Ol’ga’s children for word from the doctors.

dirizherThe central issues raised by the deaths of the conductor’s son, Ol’ga and the Palestinian suicide bomber concern sin, responsibility, guilt and repentance: Alla’s jealousy of her husband and Petrov’s arrogant rejection of his son resulted, however unintentionally, in the deaths of Petrov’s son and Ol’ga. To their credit, both Petrov and Alla face up to their responsibility: while Petrov expresses his repentance in his performance of Hilarion’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” the image of Alla with Ol’ga’s children at the hospital suggests her acceptance of responsibility for the orphans’ loss. Still, one cannot help noticing how these responses are “gendered”: the man responds through art, while the woman responds as a mother. Finally, that the Palestinian suicide bomber was washed, dressed and prepared for his act by an older man who, some viewers have suggested, might be the bomber’s father, complicates this issue in a disturbing direction. While the Orthodox Christian Alla and the humanist Petrov accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions, the movie does not allow any recognition by the Muslim Palestinian “father” of his role in the death of his “son.” Western philosophies, both religious and secular, appear to be capable of dealing with sin, guilt, responsibility and repentance in ways that the Islamic religion simply cannot: therefore, the Palestinian father disappears from the movie as soon as he sends his son to his death.

dirizherThe motif of a father sacrificing his son in the Holy Land cannot help but remind us of the Old and New Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac, perhaps even of God the Father and Christ. If Petrov has “sacrificed” his son upon the altar of art,[2] the Palestinian “father” of the suicide bomber presumably believes that his “son’s” sacrifice has been demanded by religion. Leaving gender aside for a moment, the death of Ol’ga can be seen as a “sacrifice” for the sanctity of marriage. That The Conductor doesn’t simply collapse as a result of this heavy burden of Biblical and religious symbolism is due to the powerful music that provides both diegetic and non-diegetic accompaniment to the movie. According to the director, Metropolitan Hilarion first approached him about the possibility of making a movie about his music.  Rather than a documentary, Lungin decided to use the music to tell a fictional story on the theme of the Passion. While using music composed by one of the leaders of today’s Orthodox church in a movie about death and rebirth will seem to many, to say the least, opportunistic, The Conductor successfully avoids the religious dogmatism that marred Lungin’s earlier Island: rather than the solution, religion here is definitely part of the problem.  

dirizherDecidedly a mixed bag, the film combines excellent acting, beautiful photography, dramatic action and powerful music with a screenplay that relies overmuch on coincidences, heavy-handed religious symbolism, gender and cultural stereotyping, and a rather abrupt ending. While Lungin is one of the most important, talented and ambitious Russian directors of the post-Soviet period, most of his films end up delivering less than they promise. Despite the visual and musical brilliance of The Conductor, his best work, at least for this viewer, remains his 1990 Taxi Blues.

1] Before joining the church, the multi-talented Grigorii Alfeev (b. 1966) studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory. His “St. Matthew Passion” (2006) for orchestra and chorus has been performed in Moscow, Rome and Melbourne, Australia.

2] While these associations may be confused by the son’s painting of the father in what should, logically, be his own tomb, the father’s guilt is emphasized by seeing himself in the position of his dead son.

Anthony Anemone
The New School, New York

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The Conductor, Russia, 2012
Color, 86 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenplay: Pavel Lungin, Valerii Pecheikin
Producers: Pavel Lungin, Evgenii Panfilov
Cinematography: Igor’ Griniakov, Aleksandr Simonov
Music: Hilarion Alfeev
Cast: Vladas Bagdonas, Inga Obol’dina, Karen Badalov, Dar’ia Moroz

Pavel Lungin: The Conductor (Dirizher, 2012)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2012

Updated: 14 Oct 12