It was about a year ago that I viewed Elem Klimov’s two hour gutpunch of a movie, Come and See, based on his own experiences in World War II (and he claimed he soft-pedaled it, good lord). I was stunned in more ways than one, and even more surprised that Klimov had only made six feature-length movies (and seven shorts). Alas, more than par for the course when we talking directors under the Soviet regime, and we’ll get back to that in a bit. But I was especially intrigued that one of those six movies was a film about Rasputin.
Most of my experience with Rasputin dates back to an article I read in my grandparents’ Readers Digest back in the 60s, which was about his assassination at the hands of desperate Russian aristocrats and military officers. The reason it stuck with me was the sheer amount of damage it was reported required to put the man down: poisoned food, gunshots, stabbing, beating and finally drowning. Rasputin was Michael Myers long before Halloween was ever made. It is generally agreed that he was turned into an unstoppable demonic force after the fact to justify the murder. This bit of history-as-horror-movie was probably reinforced by Hammer’s movie Rasputin starring Christopher Lee, which I must confess I still haven’t seen, so I should probably shut up about it.
If you’re any sort of film fan, by now you’ve likely read the Salon article about the legal battles engendered by the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress, which led to your favorite “This is a work of fiction” legal disclaimer at the end of all movies. So I was looking forward to an actual Russian version of the story.
Agoniya takes place in 1916, which is a section of Russian history so chaotic even professional historians have a difficult time hashing out what was actually transpiring. Klimov does an effective job of boiling down the big stories at time, helpful not only to the movie’s intended audience, I’m sure, but essential for those of us on the outside. He makes canny use of actual archival movie footage, and as the movie progresses, also seems to use new footage made to match the look of older film. World War I rages, and Czar Nicholas II has taken control of the Russian military, and he is famously bad at it. Rasputin has already insinuated himself into the royal family, as a mystic holy man who is credited (by the devoted Czarina Alexandra) with alleviating the young Czar Alexei’s medical problems (Alexei, as it turns out, was a hemophiliac, and Rasputin’s insistence that he stop taking the recent miracle drug Aspirin was more or less accidentally the right choice).
Rasputin (Alexei Petrenko) is shown to be all sorts of things: intelligent, charismatic, but driven by his emotions and passions. Petrenko manages a neat trick I had previously only seen in Bruno Ganz’ truly praiseworthy portrayal of Hitler in the oft-memed Downfall: he takes a man who has become an icon of unrepentant evil and manages to humanize him without stirring undeserved sympathy. There are times, when Rasputin is stressed and angry (and such times are plentiful), that he reminds you of Dennis Hopper at his most powerful. Hopper would have played an incredible Rasputin, it occurs to me, but that is so not here or there.
We follow Rasputin’s machinations, his ups and downs, eventually coming to the assassination by Prince Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators, but we find that the poisoned food and multiple gunshot wounds were eventually enough (the movie also shows how the clumsiness of the murder is in direct contrast to the early bravado of the group; most are ready to cut and run after they find out the poison wasn’t enough).
Rasputin’s legendary debauchery is shown, but it’s never something to wallow in, it’s just another fact laid out before us. It was that more-or-less factual approach that worked against the movie; it was finished in 1975, and then vanished without a trace for ten years, until it re-surfaced in the age of glasnost.
Rasputin is not presented as a force of pure evil, but of venal opportunism, in cahoots with a corrupt banker and an ambitious lady-in-waiting. That was likely bad enough for the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, but it was compounded by the nuanced performance of Anatoliy Romashin as Nicholas II – again, not the cruel despot that Official History required, but weak, more than willing to defer to Alexandra (Velta Line) and be swayed by Rasputin’s visions. He is a man who in way over his head, but cannot admit it, because he is the Czar, dammit. As with Rasputin’s portrayal, it doesn’t excuse the horrid bloodbaths under his rule, but it does aid immeasurably in the verisimilitude of what we are watching.
Also missing would be the beloved Bolsheviks, but this is historically accurate: they were all fighting the War, or exiled, and had been ejected from the Imperial Duma, a governing body which was a hotbed of anti-Rasputin sentiment, but only because these aristocrats and merchants were desperate to shore up the ruling family and preserve the status quo, and therefore their own power. There is increasing chaos as the day of Rasputin’s death approaches, a chaos which is nowhere evident as the dead mystic is lowered into a grave in his native village; Klimov doesn’t have to tell us this is the death knell of the Czarist government – the very stillness and grimness of the landscape lets us know an age has ended. The Age just doesn’t know it yet.
Agony is a complex story of a complex time, ultimately as confusing morally as its central character. It is a story usually presented as devilish holy faker against two pretty young lovers; here the holy man is far too human, as are the appropriately middle-aged royal couple. It’s a portrait of fucked-up people in a fucked-up time – it’s no wonder it ends in blood, even after the movie wraps up, less than year before the October Revolution. Well-made and compelling, it deserves to be much better known… much like its director.
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