When a group of scientists visit the planet Arkanar, an Earth like planet in the midst of its own Dark Ages, they are meant to observe and not interfere while searching for one of their own. The man masquerading as Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik, "Hipsters"), who is considered a god by the people he lives among, goes against the mandate by trying to help the intellectuals who are being persecuted by The Greys, but discovers it is "Hard to Be a God."
Over a decade in the making, Russian filmmaker Aleksey German's ("My Friend Ivan Lapshin") epic film lost actors and the director himself before it was completed. German's wife and screenwriting partner Svetlana Karmalita worked with their son Aleksei A. German to finish the final mixing. Without knowledge of the source material, a 60s novel by 'Stalker' authors Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy, the movie can be inscrutable in its early goings, but give yourself over to this singular art film and you will be richly rewarded.
German uses an immersive approach, his camera (cinematography by Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko) staying close to his main character in long, intricately choreographed takes so that we may experience his world as he does. And what a world this is, German having seemingly recreated medieval times where people are enslaved, oppressed, wallowing in mud, shit, piss, snot and entrails (thankfully he continues to favor black and white). 'The Renaissance didn't happen here,' we're told as Rumata sniffs everything he comes into contact with, advising that a nobleman should be clean and smell good. In a world where poets are drowned in the crap house, Rumata tries to create beauty with jazz as he makes allies in his bid to find Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov, "Taxi Blues"), believed to be held by the Minister of Security Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko). There are forces even more evil than Reba, though, and when Rumata finds Budakh the man advises him that the only solution is full scale slaughter. Although Rumata's prowess with a sword is legendary, the man has never taken a life, but when he's manipulated in a scheme that takes the life of his lover, Rumata strikes out in grief.
The film, which was shot largely in the Czech Republic, is visually spectacular, German's evocation of grotesquerie strangely beautiful - there are images here that it will be hard to ever forget (a peasant happy to find a dead dog 'sprouting,' a horrific contraption for the killing of whores, the masses of black cassocked The Order, hanging corpses covered in fish scales to attract birds to peck their eyes out, the beating heart of a disemboweled man). The camera is in constant motion, going in close, over and under in uninterrupted shots that make "Birdman" look simple. The film is a technical achievement of the highest order. Costume design by Yekaterina Shapkaitz is both imaginative and rooted in history (Rumata's gloves give his hands the appearance of scaly talons, birds and mice a symbolic theme throughout the film).
Yarmolnik, who resembles a young Daniel Auteuil, is commanding as Rumata, the stranger in a strange land. The actor employs a humorous bravado to face horrors until his own actions almost destroy him (his nose twisting technique seems lifted from Moe Howard!). Also fine is Yuriy Tsurilo ("Khrustalyov, My Car!," "Silent Souls") as his friend Baron Pampa and Natalya Moteva as Rumata's lover Ari.
Despite being set in a science fiction Middle Ages, the parallels to human history, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, are unmistakable. Political power corrupts, but religion may be an even more fearsome enemy of humanity (points also made in Russia's Foreign Language submission "Leviathan"). "Hard to Be a God," which was made previously in 1989 by Peter Fleischmann in a film featuring Werner Herzog, is a 170 minute immersion into madness that offers a glimmer of hope in its wintery conclusion.
Robin also gives "Hard to Be a God" an A-.
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