“I return good for good and evil for evil.”
If you want to understand why Ivan the Terrible earned his name, then seek out a copy of Tsar from director Pavel Lungin. Tsar is every bit as atmospheric as director Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov) and as entertaining as Tycoon (Oligarkh). As with other Russian historical films, the viewer should come to the film with a little back ground information–otherwise the film’s beginning sequences will seem confusing.
It’s 16th century Russia, 1565 to be precise and this is a pivotal time in Ivan’s reign. In a nutshell, this is the point when Ivan the Terrible goes completely bonkers. He’s convinced that the last days are nigh, and politically he faces many enemies at home and abroad. Tsar is essentially a distillation of a fairly brief portion of Ivan’s bloody reign which focuses on the relationship between Ivan (Pyotr Mamonov) and his childhood friend Philip (Oleg Yankovskiy), a Russian orthodox monk. Philip is living in the Solovetsky Monastery when he’s asked by Ivan to become the Metropolitan (Metropolitan Bishop). Philip agrees on the condition that Ivan abolish the Oprichnina and its enforcers, the Oprichniks–a band of political police who wear black cowls and who ride with wolves heads on their saddles. These Oprichniks are on the loose in the film, running amok, organizing repressions, mass murders and torture of anyone who falls into their sphere–it doesn’t seem to matter if the victims are guilty or not of crimes against Ivan.
Anyway, this is the background for the film; Ivan agrees to disband the Oprichnina; Philip agrees to become Metropolitan and then Ivan breaks the agreement. The men find themselves on opposite sides of the monarch-god divide with Ivan busy punishing everyone he can get his hands on and Philip pleading for mercy. It’s not a rare thing for a ruler to challenge the power of the church, or for the church to question the absolutism of the monarchy; there have been other examples which ended in death: Henry II and Thomas a Becket, Thomas More and Henry VIII, but perhaps the clash between Metropolitan Philip and Ivan is more spectacularly bloody. Most of the story follows their tumultuous relationship–with Ivan demanding and Philip eventually refusing to grant forgiveness for Ivan’s crimes.
The film doesn’t have the greatest subtitles, and so a certain amount of tolerance is required from the viewer, but apart from that this is a spectacular film, a marvelous recreation of the excesses, insanity and utter cruelty of this barbaric age. As expected, there are some scenes of torture, and in one rather gruesome scene, a bear, set loose in an arena, eats the intestines of a man while Ivan and the court look on this ‘entertaining’ scene. Ivan watches with a little girl sitting on his lap. The child, a daughter of one on Ivan’s now dead enemies, asks Ivan in hushed tones if ‘it hurts,’ and Ivan joyfully replies, “of course,” stressing the idea that the pain is the entire point.
In another sequence, Ivan and his equally nasty Tsarina (he burned through eight wives by the way) Maria (Ramilya Iskander) are escorted in sleighs through the snow to see what at first seems like some sort of amusement park, but the amusement park doubles as a torture centre. Ivan is delighted and can’t wait to try it out. Ivan vacillates between acts of tremendous cruelty and periods of self-imposed isolation and prayer, and actor Pyotr Mamonov brilliantly captures the dangerous moods–sliding from craftiness to paranoia seamlessly. As Ivan sinks deeper into sadistic madness, Philip gains a calm acceptance which Ivan challenges and attempts to overturn. Ivan finally uses Philip’s nephew in a cruel attempt to smash Philip’s equanimity. The question becomes at what point should a voice of rationality and sanity divorce itself from the excesses of an insane monarch and refuse to cooperate with the madness.
This is a beautifully made film with incredible touches at just the right moment. Divided into four segments, the film charts Ivan’s actions as he’s plagued with military losses and paranoia over possible (and well-deserved) betrayal. With omens of the last days, the Poles beating his armies, and with the virgin daughters of the Boyars enslaved to prepare Ivan’s new church, the film reflects and thus propagates Ivan’s infectious Armageddon mentality. In one of the most delicately handled scenes that could so easily have folded to excess, monks are burnt alive and we see them kneeling and singing but their voices are silent as the smoke swirls and the flames lap the building. For a visual spectacle, Tsar is marvellous as it recreates some of the more infamous moments including the massacre of Novgorod. In the film’s unsettling final scene, it remains unclear whether a ghostly wind carries faint cries or if it simply echoes through the deserted dwellings of Novgorod.