Issue 39 (2013)

Vladimir Mirzoev: Boris Godunov (2011)

reviewed by Rad Borislavov © 2013

godunovThe first theater productions of Vladimir Mirzoev, a graduate of the Theater Institute GITIS (now RATI) and one of Russia’s most respected theater directors, date back to the late 1980s. After a stint of about three years in Canada where he taught, directed plays by Russian classics, and filmed documentary cinema, Mirzoev returned to Russia. Since his return he has acquired a well-deserved reputation for edgy and innovative work in a field marked by perennial scandals and the pressures of the new economic conditions. Mirzoev still works in theater but has recently become increasingly interested in cinema as well. In 2006 he directed Signs of Love (Znaki liubvi), in 2009 The Man Who Knew Everything (Chelovek kotoryi znal vse), a film based on the eponymous novel by Igor' Sakhnovskii, and in 2012 the TV play Contract (Kontrakt), an adaptation of Sławomir Mrożek’s play with the same title, which appeared on the TV channel Kul’tura. It was in 2011, however, that Mirzoev completed his arguably most ambitious cinematographic project to date and the one that has garnered most attention: his cinematic version of Pushkin’s historical play Boris Godunov.

godunovFirst conceived in 1997, the film project had to be shelved because of the potentially negative associations with the then President, Boris El’tsin. Now, almost thirteen years later, Mirzoev has managed to complete his film without any contributions from the Russian state coffers. Whether the timing was more propitious or not, the context in which Boris Godunov premiered in November 2011 was highly politicized and the film inevitably stirred up debates about Russia’s political culture and its past, present, and future. An engaged observer and participant in Russia’s political and cultural life, Mirzoev has been outspoken about his political views and sympathies, and has used his blog and a variety of social media to publicize his position. This is somewhat strange as in interviews about Boris Godunov, a work that easily lends itself to political allegorization, Mirzoev has gone out of his way to distance himself from overt political readings of his adaptation of Pushkin’s classical drama. An almost Socratic figure, both visually and intellectually, Mirzoev countered the frenzy fanned by the media that saw an attempt on the part of bureaucrats to ban the film from the big screen when it became clear that Boris Godunov would not be released for wide distribution.

godunovStill, the circumstances surrounding the film’s release in November 2011 drew as much—if not more—attention to aspects of Mirzoev’s stylistic innovation, and the question of sponsorship and state subsidies for Russian cinematic productions became one of the hotly debated issues. While the Russian liberal media praised Boris Godunov for its subtle cinematography, relevance, and Mirzoev’s steady hand in dealing with the classics (including Boris Akunin who voiced support for the film in his blog on the eve of film’s premiere), disappointingly, Mirzoev’s film was shown in a handful of cinemas across Moscow, at one time exclusively and as far away as Severnoe Butovo, on the far southern outskirts of the city, and eventually in a very few more centrally located Moscow theaters that Mirzoev obviously managed to convince to screen the film. Mirzoev has credited social media, his online presence (a website and blog), and word of mouth for these showings. Outside Russia, Boris Godunov appeared in the Toronto Russian Film Festival where it won third-place viewers’ choice award. In Russia, despite its limited exposure, the film was awarded the prestigious Miron Chernenko Award of the Russian Guild of Film Critics. A year after the film’s premiere, the question has become even more topical as in December 2012 Izvestiia reported that a project to give preference to films responding “to the strategic interests of the state” with socially important themes, a clear echo of practices reminiscent of Soviet times, has been proposed by the Ministry of Culture.

godunovAdaptations of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov have had a troubled history. Pushkin’s play was not allowed to be staged until the early 1870s and then only in a heavily revised and censored version by Modest Mussorgsky. At the time, Mussorgsky’s production received mixed reviews while the composer changed significantly the plot and text of Pushkin’s drama to accommodate its translation to a new medium. Thus, Mussorgsky extended the tavern scene at the Lithuanian border, one of the most successful in the play, in which Grisha Otrep’ev narrowly escapes the soldiers. Mussorgsky’s version has been quite influential and was used both for Vera Stroeva’s 1954 film as well as for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Covent Garden production in 1983. In the early 1930s, the émigrés Dmitrii Merezhkovskii and Zinaida Gippius co-wrote a screenplay in which they made significant alterations to Pushkin’s text while focusing on the False Dmitrii rather than on Godunov. The screenplay was for a film starring Fedor Chaliapin, Jr. It is noteworthy that Sergei Eisenstein also had plans to film parts of Boris Godunov in what he imagined as a film devoted to Pushkin and titled The Poet’s Love (Liubov’ poeta) (Pogozheva).

godunovIn this context, one of the remarkable features of Mirzoev’s adaptation is that he has made few—if any—changes to Pushkin’s text. This does not mean that visually Mirzoev has not calibrated carefully text and image to serve his own vision as director. As the action of Pushkin’s play has been transferred to contemporary Russia, one of the indisputable successes of the film is the ease and ability with which Mirzoev works with mise-en-scène. The glitzy Moscow urban scenes on occasion make the film appear almost futuristic. BMWs, MacBooks, smartphones, and flat-screen TVs are just some of the choices that the director has made to drive the point home. The audience cannot forget for a minute that Mirzoev is a theater director—the richness and lavishness of the décor is one of the important aspects of the film. In some scenes, however, the modern décor is showcased in a somewhat transparent and redundant manner as, for example, when Otrep’ev is changing the channels i.e. still images and icons on a wall-mounted TV set in Chudov monastery as he is trying to distract himself after his nightmare.

godunovIn another directorial decision which might seem a little disorienting at the beginning, Mirzoev inserted a segment, attempting and stopping short of, showing the Imperial family, dressed in appropriate historical costumes being murdered in an all too obvious parallel to the death of Dmitrii of Uglich, and thus drawing out the connections between the end of the two dynasties. The film then proceeds with the plot of the drama proper and the opening dialogue between Vasilii Shuiskii and Vorotynskii, against the backdrop of the glass-and-steel architecture of Moscow-City. However, the reference to the beginning of the twentieth-century is not forgotten and Mirzoev draws on the device of a play within a play toward the end of the film when Otrep’ev has just lost the battle near Novgorod-Severskii against Boris’ army and, following the defeat, addresses his dying horse with remorse. Mirzoev has chosen to shoot the scene as a play within a play in which the Otrep’ev, dressed as a tsarist officer, and his lieutenants act out the scene for Godunov and his courtiers in Moscow, thus seamlessly bridging two successive scenes in Pushkin’s text.

godunovProbably the most important directorial decision, and one that clearly gestures toward contemporary social realia, is that Mirzoev intercut Shchelkalov’s announcement of Godunov’s ascension to the throne in scenes 2 and 3 of Pushkin’s play with shots featuring a proletarian and an intelligentsia family. Rather than standing in the cold in front of the Kremlin and Novodevich’e Convent respectively, the people are bifurcated into a proletarian family sitting at a small kitchen table, calmly drinking and waiting to hear news about Godunov’s decision; and an intelligentsia family, much more gloomily sipping tea and smoking nervously. While this juxtaposition does not rise to the level of transparent political commentary, it seems that the representation of the common people is more positive as the intelligentsia family is lost in self-doubt, with the mother neurotically shaking her head as she declaims, “and swelling like a wave in its approach,” referring to the crowd outside the Kremlin. In another none too subtle parallel to literary politics in the 1830s, as Shchelkalov, the Council Scribe, played by the news anchor Leonid Parfenov, reads the official announcement of Godunov’s decision to ascend, one can see on the wall in the background an advertisement for Faddei Bulgarin’s paper Northern Bee.

godunovIf in these scenes from the film Mirzoev complicates, adding layers of meaning and metaphor, elsewhere he tends to simplify and explain. If Pushkin’s texts often hints and suggests, Mirzoev, availing himself of cinematic means, explicates. This is the case in the death of Godunov’s family which, more or less ambiguous in Pushkin, is illustrated by Mirzoev who shows Feodor Godunov and Maria Godunova being injected with poison. Another inherently cinematic scene is Otrep’ev’s dream, not recounted in any detail in Pushkin’s text, which Mirzoev casts appropriately in shadows and dark hallways, and a palpably foreboding atmosphere. The dream ends abruptly as Otrep’ev is wandering around in the dark with a torch and eventually encounters his dead body. The same visual commentary is deployed more powerfully, if somewhat preemptively, to show Godunov getting intoxicated and attempting to engage in conversation the murdered Dmitrii of Uglich, who appears consistently in a children’s seaman’s uniform. Finally, at the end of the film, the play’s controversial and quizzical ending, “the people are silent,” is illustrated by the intelligentsia family turning off the TV after they have learned the terrible fate of the Godunovs.

godunovCasting is one of the really strong points in the film. Maksim Sukhanov is unfailingly charismatic and tragic, playing a tormented and remorseful Godunov, while Andrei Merzlikin (Otrep’ev) is a convincing impostor, sensual and psychologically complex. The swimming pool, the setting for the meeting between Otrep’ev and Marina, is a scene infused with sensuality from which the film only gains, as it provides a much needed human dimension to the characters. In Mirzoev’s interpretation, Otrep’ev admits to being the impostor while playing in the pool and trying to entice Marina to join him in the water. The chemistry between Merzlikin and Agniia Ditkovskite is obvious and while Mirzoev has followed Pushkin closely until this moment, here he decides to cut Otrep’ev’s last monolog in this scene in which the impostor despairs of the cunning of women and promises to proceed quickly with his plans to invade Russia. Mirzoev instead suggests that the relationship has been consummated, intercutting the kissing Marina and Otrep’ev with scenes of debauchery. Here and in a few other places, Mirzoev omits passages from Pushkin, as in the case of the Patriarch’s entreaty of Boris to bring the remains of the murdered Dmitrii to Moscow, a passage that has little diegetic significance for the film. Both Leonid Parfenov and Mikhail Kozakov (Pimen), who passed away shortly after the film was completed, were deservedly praised by Russian film critics for their performance.

Mirzoev’s film is a provocative rumination not only on Russia and its ostensibly feudal political institutions in the twenty-first century, but also on the more ontological and philosophical dimensions of power and the nature of historical change. Whether or not comparisons between the Time of Troubles and contemporary Russia have any explanatory power is a very different matter; at the same time, however, it is undeniable that asking probing and pointed questions is quite necessary. Poised uneasily between art and a political statement, Mirzoev’s Boris Godunov is a careful balancing act between the two. As one less sanguine critic has put it, the film may give the impression of a return to the late-Soviet impasse between those in power and the intelligentsia (Zintsov). In an interview for Rossiiskaia gazeta, however, Mirzoev has shared his plans to revisit this historical period of the second half of the sixteenth century and to film a prequel to Boris Godunov, an attempt to narrate the story of Andrei Kurbskii based on Iurii Shpital’nyi’s play Treason, Tsar (Izmena, gosudar’) as well as start work on a cinematic version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Kichin). One can only hope that, given the current condition of Russian cinema and Mirzoev’s promise not to ask for money from the federal budget, these plans will materialize.

Rad Borislavov
Miami University

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Works Cited

Boris Akunin, “Fil’m Mirzoeva" (Iz razdela ‘Karoshi liubliu’)

“Minkul’t vybral glavnye temy dlia kino” Izvestiia 5 December 2012

Valerii Kichin, “Nelechennye travmy” Rossiiskaia gazeta 6 December 2011

Oleg Zintsov, “Fil’m Vladimir Mirzoeva Boris Godunov:kniazia na mersedesakh, Pimen s noutbukom” Vedomosti 17 November 2011

Boris Godunov, Russia, 2011
Color, 128 minutes
Director: Vladimir Mirzoev
Screenplay: Vladimir Mirzoev
Camera: Pavel Kostomarov
Art Design: Valerii Arkhipov
Music: Second Hand Band
Sound: Viktor Timshin
Costumes: Tat’iana Galova
Editing: Igor’ Litoninskii
Cast: Maksim Sukhanov, Andrei Merzlikin, Leonid Gromov, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Petr Fedorov, Ramil’ Sabitov, Leonid Parfenov, Mikhail Kozakov, Andrei Tashkov, Igor’ Vorobev, Agniia Ditkovskite, Ol’ga Iakovleva, Valentinas Masal’skis, Valentin Varetskii, Sergei Shekhovtsov, Dmitrii Volkov, Zakhar Khungureev, Stas Sukharev, Elena Shevchenko, Sof’ia Fedorova Roshal’
Producer: Ekaterina Mirzoeva
Production: Parsuna

Vladimir Mirzoev: Boris Godunov (2011)

reviewed by Rad Borislavov © 2013

Updated: 05 Jan 13