The Idiot (2003)

 “What a sweet and innocent idea of life you have.”

idiotThis 550 minute, 4-disc set of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is a ten episode miniseries made by Russian-state television, and it’s clearly a labour of love for those involved in the project. A commitment to watch this version of the great Russian novel, is nothing to take lightly, and it helps to come to the film with some knowledge of the book. That said, fans of the novel, the author, Russophiles, or those who just love excellently produced foreign television that remains true to the classic novels on which it is based, should be well-pleased by this production.

Set in 19th century Russia, the story concerns Prince Myshkin (Yevgeni Mironov). When the film begins he’s just returned from a sanitarium in Switzerland, and he calls upon some relatives–General Yepanchin, his wife and 3 daughters. He’s just inherited his father’s estate, and he’s now unleashed in St. Petersburg society. No one knows quite what to make of the Prince. Known to suffer “fits” he’s sweet natured, innocent, and incapable of guile. This combination of characteristics can make him both an entertaining guest and a social liability. One of the most peculiar characteristics of the prince is that in spite of the fact he possesses a keen understanding of the depths of human nature, he remains almost childlike in his faith in human goodness. And this is the odd thing–most people who understand human nature also possess a deep cynicism–but not the Prince. Because of his innocence and inherently good nature, his peers deem him an idiot, and even he admits that his “frequent fits have almost made me an idiot.” He seems to bring out both the best and the worst in people. As the Prince attempts to negotiate the complications of Russian society, the question becomes–will his goodness and innocence survive or will he be crushed or corrupted?

Prince Myshkin becomes embroiled in the affairs of Nastasya Filippovna (Lidiya Velezheva) the beautiful mistress of Totsky, a wealthy man. Totsky is about to marry and plans to discard his mistress in a genteel fashion by marrying her off to the General’s ambitious secretary Ganya. Willful Nastasya however has other plans, and she casts her lot in with a dark, threatening character–Rogozhin (Vladimir Mashkov)–a man who loves her obsessively. While other men bargain for her favours, the Prince offers to marry Nastasya to ‘save’ her from Rogozhin. Eventually, the Prince also becomes romantically involved with Aglaya Yepanchina (Olga Budina) who soon finds that she has a rival in the notorious Nastasya.

The Idiot is perfectly cast–especially Myshkin’s character, and the actor Yevgeni Mironov’s simple gesture of seeking close eye contact during conversation conveys Myshkin’s earnestness and utter goodness most effectively. The film captures the novel’s mood and tone with brilliantly structured and paced scenes, and whenever Dostoevsky’s troubled, and desperate characters gather in a social setting, a disaster soon occurs–scenes at Nastasya’s party, scenes at Myshkin’s home, scenes at Aglaya’s home. It’s all quite perfect. Directed by Vladimir Bortko, the film is in Russian with subtitles. And a note on the subtitles–they start off well translated, and slide downhill from there–running right off the edge of the screen, lagging behind the speeches, and full of errors. That’s a disappointment for a production of this quality, but in spite of that, this DVD set was worth every penny.

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