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The politics of “Taras Bulba”: do they matter?

Posted on Thursday, April 9th, 2009 at 3:23 am

Author: Natalia Antonova

The following review contains spoilers. Of course, if you are familiar with Nikolai Gogol, you probably know how the film ends. If you are not familiar with Nikolai Gogol, you should be.

When I started getting texts and e-mails imploring me to see the new “Taras Bulba” film, directed by a Russian with a Ukrainian-sounding last name – Vladimir Bortko – I was intrigued. “The politics,” everyone said, “what do you think about the politics?”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll tell you what I think.” Shortly thereafter I said, “Oh dear God. I fell for it, didn’t I?”

Taras Bulba, the short novel by Nikolai Gogol, has two versions – the later, official version being markedly more pro-Russian in nature. It’s a tale of Zaporizhian Cossacks, Poles, pogroms, war, forbidden love, and lots and lots of romantic nationalism. It makes sense that even today, Bulba should be expected to make waves.

poster ⓒ Ark-film

poster ⓒ Ark-film

On one hand, Bortko has been commended for at least trying to dampen down the story’s anti-Semitism, without losing sight of the bloody history of Cossacks and Jews. On the other hand, the movie sticks faithfully to the later version of the text, which could potentially be cause for disappointment among those of us who expected Bortko to say something politically unexpected.

The actual problem here is that Bortko’s film is a grotesque retelling, utilizing the most exaggerated elements of Gogol’s writing. Remember how ridiculous Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” was? It’s a bit like that, with sabers instead of sandals. This is a particular shame, considering that the beloved Bogdan Stupka plays Taras and the film’s release was delayed to coincide with Gogol’s bicentennial.

A filmmaker adapting a literary text needs to buckle down and make actual choices as to how to portray emotion and dialogue. Imagine, for example, a retelling of The Lord of the Rings that portrays, in excruciating detail, how Sam shouts “Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!” and proceeds to burst into tears. Just because a conversation works on paper doesn’t mean it’s going to easily translate onto the screen.

The Russian Wikipedia page for the movie says that “even during his terrible execution, Taras remains a true patriot.” Even without seeing the film, can you imagine how a modern audience (the Miniver Cheevey’s among us notwithstanding) will react to that, regardless of personal politics? As the dying Cossacks utter grandiose last words that would note be out of place in “The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged),” even the generous amount of gore does not quite shame you into stifling the giggles.

The Zaporizhian Sich that Taras Bulba belongs to was later destroyed by the Russian Empress, Catherine II, hence making the tale play like a cruel joke at times (this is without going into the complicated allegiances the Cossacks made over their long history – a history that cannot satisfy any political propaganda machine). But what does it matter if the entire film is a joke – neither cruel, nor funny, but simply bad?

When you’re dealing with a movie that makes “Braveheart” look like “A Room with a View” by comparison, its larger implications remain relevant only to high school students who will be forced – despite the good weather, or perhaps because of it – to write long and tedious papers on the subject.

If you read Russian, please check out Roman Volobuev’s brilliant review of this monstrosity.

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