The 1917 film, Father Sergius (Otets Sergiy) is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, and after suffering through the 1990 version from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Night Sun/Il Sole Anche di Notte), I hunted down a copy of this original, silent film. Father Sergius was made after the February Revolution but completed before the October Revolution, and with its anti-tsarist stance, it’s an extremely important film in the history of Russian cinema. Tolstoy’s story was controversial for its implications about the Tsar’s private life and also for the implications about the priesthood. The film was not shown in cinemas until May 1918.
Co directed by Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff this is the tale of Prince Kasatsky (Ivan Mozzhukhin sometimes spelt Mozhukin). The story begins with glimpses into the character of the young Kasatsky as he attends military training school, and it’s noted that he would make a “model officer” if not for his temper.
In adulthood, Kasatsky falls in love with Maria (V. Dzheneyeva) and several scenes show Kasatsky tentatively attempting to establish a relationship with Maria, but unrequited love is in the air as he gazes at her while she gives him the cold shoulder. Unbeknownst to Kasatsky, Maria is the mistress to Tsar Nikolai I, and when rumours begin to fly around the court, the Tsar decides to marry off his mistress to avoid the scandal. Kasatsky is selected as the bridegroom, but is horrified when he learns the truth.
Devastated and humiliated, Kasatsky becomes an acolyte, a priest, a hermit, healer and a wandering holy man, and the film follows this process while emphasizing that this choice is Kasatsky’s failure to face his pride. Even as a priest, however, Kasatsky, now the bearded Father Sergius suffers the temptations of the flesh in some of the film’s very best scenes. At one point, he’s locked up with a nymphomaniac in an attempt to cure her (and the inevitable happens) and this sends him spiraling off into solitude. But even here the now middle-aged, unhappy and hysterical Maria finds him.
Actor Ivan Mozzhukhin (also known as the Russian Valentino) fled from Russia and settled in Paris, eventually trying his luck in Hollywood, but the end of silent films combined with the actor’s Russian accent ended hopes for a Hollywood career. Mozzhukhin returned to France and died there of tuberculosis in 1939.
If you are a fan of silent film, or if you are interested in Russian cinema, then seek out Father Sergius. This really is an amazing film–the sort of silent film in which you don’t ‘miss’ dialogue because the story and the acting are all encompassing. The film includes some incredible scenes–the temptations suffered by Father Sergius, a fantasy-guilt scene, and one scene (possibly the best scene in the film) in which father Sergius stares through a window and glimpses peasants dancing, and the dancing evokes poignant memories of the ball and falling in love with Maria.