Agony-the Life and Death of Rasputin (1981)

 “There are revolts brewing in the country.”

agonyThe Soviet film Agony: The Life and Death of Rasputin directed by Elim Klimov places a great deal of the blame for the fall of the Romanovs on the head of the Mad Monk, Rasputin (Aleksei Petrenko). A delicately sympathetic portrayal of Czar Nicholas II (Anatoli Romashin) shows the ruler of Russia as an inept, hapless character who is unable to combat Rasputin’s evil influence. While the Czar seems disturbed at the manner in which his wife and mother fall to their knees in prayer to Rasputin for averting crisis after crisis with the Czar’s hemophiliac son, he obviously feels powerless to prevent it. But the Romanovs are not the only elite family to be ruled by the caprices of a mystic. Other nobles are similarly enthralled by a Tibetan healer who’s rather more restrained than Rasputin.

The film definitely leans towards the excesses of Rasputin’s life–his cult followers, and the trail of women ready to offer their bodies to this mystic. Several surreal scenes depict Rasputin in a state of drunkenness, or perhaps it’s just madness. Some of the scenes (depicting the millionaire and the banker, for example) are jarring, and don’t make a great deal of sense. The best parts of the film depict the Czar’s ministers pleading for intervention against Rasputin’s excesses, and at one point the Czar simply slips from the room as his ministers rattle on. There’s also an excellent scene involving the Black Hundreds. Another scene depicts Nicholas firing in frenzy at birds in the sky. Their twitching bloody bodies in the snow foreshadow the brutal deaths of the Romanovs, an event that was very close at hand.

The film, at 142 minutes (the version I watched), is a curiosity. Archival footage is artfully blended with black and white film and at times it’s impossible to tell the reality from the fictional account. The emphasis on Rasputin’s dire influence on the Russian throne seems to imply that the Russian Revolution was a quirk of fate that could have been avoided if Rasputin hadn’t appeared on the scene, and that his rotten influence was responsible for pushing the country over the edge from discontent to full-blown revolution. That is, of course, to underplay the many uprisings experienced in Russia prior to 1917–although one scene reveals the Czar’s memories of the events of 1905. In Russian with subtitles.

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