Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ivan the Terrible

Written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible is a two-part historical film about the 16th Century who ruled Russia from 1533 to 1547. The film is a historical epic that was meant to be a trilogy as it explored Ivan Vasilyevich trying to make Russia the empire it would be as he is played by Nikolay Cherkasov. Also starring Serafima Birman, Pavel Kadochnikov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosi Buchma, Mikhail Kuznetsov, and Lyudmila Tselikovskaya. Ivan the Terrible is an astounding yet rich two-part film from Sergei Eisenstein.

The films are essentially about Ivan Vasilyevich’s rise as the tsar of Russia from his wedding to the Tsarina Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) to his victory over the boyars who had been conspiring to get rid of him just as he wants to unite Russia against its enemies in and out of the country. All of which plays into Ivan’s development as a tsar who endures a lot of trials and tribulations to gain the trust of the people yet finds himself at odds with traditionalist boyars who had been controlling the land and such for their own reasons. Since it is a two-part film, it does play into Ivan’s struggle with not just his enemies but the betrayal he faces from those who were once close to him as the only people he can trust are commoners whom he had brought in to be part of counsel.

The first part is about Ivan’s marriage to Anastasia, his victory over Kazan, and the illness that nearly killed him as he becomes paranoid over those that tried to kill him. The second part is about his return to Moscow after being driven away by the boyars as he would face his foes while trying to uncover the truth over who has been leading the plot to dethrone him. The screenplays that Sergei Eisenstein writes showcases Ivan’s ascension into the throne where not everyone is pleased to have him be the new tsar. The biggest enemy that Ivan faces is his own aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) who is an old-school traditionalist who doesn’t like Ivan’s new ideas to unify the states in Russia and remove the power of the boyars. Efrosinia would lead the plot to get rid of Ivan with the help of other traditionalists while she hopes to put her son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) to become the new tsar despite the fact that he’s very dim-witted and not eager to play into the role of power.

Efrosinia’s actions in the first film would bring paranoia to Ivan as she would also do things to steer the path of one of Ivan’s friends in prince Andrey Kursky (Mikhail Nazvanov) to betray him where he would gain allegiance with the Polish. Kursky’s betrayal would be among the many losses that Ivan would deal with as he would lose another friend in Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov) who becomes the Archbishop Philip as he becomes part of a religious group that would oppose Ivan. The second film also features a flashback scene where Ivan as a child (Erik Pyryev) who witnesses not just his mother’s death but also everything where he realizes who his true enemies are which plays into Ivan’s resolve to get rid of the boyars. Realizing his only true allies are the commoners he had brought into the counsel, the film’s third act would play into not just Ivan’s suspicions towards his aunt but also his plan to outsmart her.

Eisenstein’s direction for both films are very entrancing in not just the way he presents the scenes that play out throughout the film. It’s also in the fact that he rarely moves the camera for the entirety of the first film with some camera movements in the second film. Much of the direction has Eisenstein creating some very mesmerizing close-ups and wide shots to create something that is epic but also eerie in the way some of the characters conspire to get rid of Ivan. Some of the direction in the scenes at the cathedral and palaces are filled with these dazzling images to create something that feels important as it plays to Ivan’s ascension into the throne but there is that undercurrent of darkness looming in the film. While the direction in the first film is straightforward with some of those entrancing images, things do get much darker in the second film where the camera does start to move a bit.

Notably in that film’s second half where it is in a sequence following a lavish yet surreal banquet shot in color where Ivan invites Vladimir to get to know him. It is among one of the most interesting moments of the film as well as its climax where it would play into Ivan’s desire to finally usurp and outsmart his enemies. There’s also a scene between Vladimir and Efrosinia where Eisenstein does a slow zoom to create this close-up to showcase the closeness of their relationship as well as Efrosinia’s desire to have her son defeat Ivan. Her role in the film’s climax is a notable one in not just how she had tried to manipulate those to usurp Ivan but the cost of everything she had tried to do against her nephew who had become a much more cunning individual. Overall, Eisenstein creates a truly spectacular and engrossing two-part film about one of Russia’s unforgettable leaders.

Cinematographers Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse do brilliant work with the films’ photography from its use of shadows and lighting schemes for much of the film‘s interiors as it‘s mostly shot in black-and-white to the surreal banquet scene in color to display the dark plans that Ivan has in store upon meeting Vladimir. Editors Sergei Eisenstein and Esfir Tobak do superb work with the editing where a lot of it is straightforward with some rhythmic cuts for the films’ big dramatic moments. Production designer Isaac Shipnel does amazing work with the set pieces such as the cathedrals and palaces in both films as well as the old palace room in the second film as well as the banquet.

Costume designers Leonid Naumov and M. Safonova do excellent work with the costumes with Naumov creating some of the uniforms for Ivan‘s army in the first film with Safanova creating the lavish robes for the second film. The makeup work of V. Goryunov is terrific for the look of Ivan in his development as this young, determined man to a very cunning and ruthless individual trying to fight his foes. The sound work of Vladimir Bogdankevich and Boris Volsky is fantastic for the atmosphere it creates in some of the locations including the craziness that occurs in the second film. The music by Sergei Prokofiev is phenomenal with its grand yet powerful orchestral score filled with these massive string and percussive arrangements while it features with lyrics by Vladimir Lugovski to play into Ivan‘s rise and the rebellion that is emerging against him from the boyars.

The incredible cast includes some small yet notable performances from Vladimir Balashov as Efrosinia’s hired assassin Pytor in the second film, Erik Pyryev as the young Ivan in the second film, Mikhail Zharov as Ivan’s aide Malyuta as a man whom Ivan would trust the most as he leads the secret police, Amvrosi Buchma as a commoner named Alexei Basmanov whom Ivan would use as his voice to talk to the people, and Mikhail Kuznetsov as Alexei’s son Fyodor as a young man who goes from an admirer of Ivan to being one of Ivan’s closest allies who would uncover Efrosinia’s plot. Other memorable small performances come from Mikhail Nazvanov and Andrei Abrikosov in their respective roles as Prince Kursky and Archbishop Philip as the two men who started off as friends of Ivan and in the 2nd film, his enemies.

Lyudmila Tselikovskaya is wonderful as Ivan’s wife Anastasia as she is very crucial part to the first film as she’s the object of affection for Prince Kursky while remind Ivan about the foes that he has to face. Pavel Kadochnikov is excellent as Ivan’s cousin Vladimir as this child-like man who unknowingly becomes Ivan’s opponent as he is just a man with simple ideas as he is being used by his mother unaware of the role that his mother and the boyars want him to play. Serafima Birman is amazing as Efrosinia as Ivan’s ruthless aunt who wants to dethrone Ivan from his new role as she also hopes to regain power for the boyars while doing wicked things to destroy Ivan.

Finally, there’s Nikolay Cherkasov in a magnificent performance as the titular character where he starts off as this young man becoming the tsar of Russia with hopes to unify the country and later becoming a ruthless leader who has his back against the wall. Cherkasov brings a sense of bravado to the role as a man determined to do what is right for his country. Even if he has to be this known as Ivan the Terrible where he is also very cunning about how to defeat his foes yet is also aware of his own isolation as he tries to make peace with former friends. It’s truly a performance for the ages as Cherkasov brings everything and more to a role as historical as Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan the Terrible is a sprawling yet outstanding two-part film from Sergei Eisenstein that features a remarkable performance from Nikolay Cherkasov in the titular role. The two films are truly some of the finest pieces of art from Russia as well as one of Eisenstein’s finest achievements despite the fact that he was unable to complete a third film for what would’ve been a great trilogy. In the end, the two-part films known as Ivan the Terrible is a tremendous film from Sergei Eisenstein.

Sergei Eisenstein Films: (Glumov’s Diary) - Strike (1925 film) - Battleship Potemkin - (October: Ten Days that Shook the World) - (The General Line) - (Que Viva Mexico) - (Bezhin Meadow) - Alexander Nevsky

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