The Village Detective: A Song Cycle

In 2016, an Icelandic lobster trawler scraping the Atlantic Ridge pulled up four reels of 35mm film with its catch.  The late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson knew just the filmmaker to alert to this news, Bill Morrison, who gloried in the beauty of decomposing film stock in his “Decasia” and who took a cache of lost silent films found in Dawson City and used them to recreate the area’s Gold Rush history.  But this found film is not like those found films, Morrison instead using it for a bit of cinematic fun and as a jumping off point for a bio doc on Russian actor Mihail Zharov in “The Village Detective: A Song Cycle.”

Laura's Review: B-

If “Dawson City: Frozen Time” was a masterpiece, Morrison’s latest is a lark, a somewhat unfocused and slight history of Russian silent film (we see a snippet of Lenin from *another* film found by a fishing boat) with a more in depth examination of popular Russian actor Zharov’s seventy year career.  Although Morrison identifies the found film from the get go as a Soviet detective film from 1969, one which we assume is readily available, he treats it like a lost artifact, a tongue in cheek decision.  Icelandic archivist Erlendur Sveinsson is shown carefully unreeling the mud-covered film, Morrison teasing out its damaged contents in separate scenes as Zharov’s detective interviews suspects in a stolen accordion case, all set to David Lang’s droning accordion score.

In Moscow, film curator Peter Bagrov tells us Zharov was as well known in Russia as Bogart is in the U.S.  A strong director, like Sergei Eisenstein, would get strong performances, Zharov notable as the Tsar’s guard in "Ivan the Terrible Part II."  Ironically he got his start in the 1915 silent "Tsar Ivan the Terrible,” also as a guard, before many years playing character parts.  His breakthrough was in the Soviet Union’s first sound film, “Road to Life,” in which the actor was the first to sing in a Russian film – to an accordion.  We also learn the actor stood up to Stalin, refusing to condemn the parents of his Jewish wife when they were imprisoned (they were released after Stalin’s death).

Mostly, though, we await the conclusion of Zharov’s Fyodor Ivanovich Aniskin’s investigation into that accordion and by the midpoint of Morrison’s film one can see why this 1969 film was thrown into the ocean!  But Morrison has some fun with it, at one point cutting to another Zharov feature, a 1970 film called “Zharov Tells,” featuring him finding an accordion.  In the end, he drops the pretense, giving us the (really disappointing) conclusion with a good print of the film.  ‘It’s not the quiet of eternity you have to listen for – it’s the accordion.’

Robin's Review: C+

Kino Lorber released "The Village Detective: A Song Cycle" in theaters on 9/22/21.  It will be available on VOD and on blu-ray on 11/23/21.