FATHER SERGIUS (Yakov & Alexandre Volkoff Protazanov, 1919, Russia, 112m, BW)
aka. Otets Sergei
Directed by Yakov Protazanov
Produced by Joseph N. Ermolieff
Written by Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Starring Ivan Mosjoukine
Music by Y. Bukke
Cinematography Fédote Bourgasoff
Country Soviet Union
Language Silent film with
Father Sergius is a 1918 Soviet silent film directed by Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff. It is based on the eponymous story by Leo Tolstoy.
During the reign of Russian Tsar Nicholas I. Prince Kasatsky discovers that his fiancée has an affair with the Tsar. He decides to break his engagement and retires to a convent where he tries to reach holiness.
Yakov Protazanov is one of the few film directors to have been active both under the Russian Empire and the USSR. This film was one the last that he shot in Russia at the begining of the revolution. He was soon to leave for western Europe, where he shot a number of films in France and Germany, before returning to the Soviet Union in 1923 where he would continue a successful career, starting in 1924 with the first Soviet science-fiction film Aelita.
The film is a faithful adaptation of Tolstoy's eponymous short story. In the version presently available two episodes are missing, the visit that the main character makes to his cousin Pashenka just before becoming a wandering beggar, and what happens to him after his deportation to Siberia.
The film is remarkable in the first place for its aesthetics. It alternates wide shots and close-ups and the camera is very mobile with horizontal and vertical panning and sometimes a combination of both to follow the characters as they are moving. The mix of wide shots of a crowd and close-ups of some of the participants is a precursor of the cinematographic language which will be developed by S.M. Eisenstein.
The censorship of Czar-era Russia had tight regulations concerning religion and politics (the portrayal of the royal family). This movie was made before the revolution of 1917 in a time of turmoil, it could just barely be made then; boasting the name of Tolstoy being a big asset. After the revolution, no such movie would be made for a long time.
Otets Sergei has both a very unconventional religious figure and it portraits the Czar as having extra-marital relationships. At heart it is the life story of a young successful army officer, prince Kasatsky, who unknowingly falls in love with the mistress of the Czar. When he eventually finds out the truth about his soon-to-be-married wife (she wants to marry him to stop the rumors about her affair with the Czar), he is so shocked that he retreats to a monastery to become a monk (and after years Father Sergei). Later he battles with the temptations of romantic lust and the dreams of how things could have been.
The movie has many uncommonly modern characteristics. Besides the daring subject it has a rather strongly developed lead character, good storytelling and cinematography and a script which deals with human emotions without being exploitative or sentimental. Altogether it has a very modern touch to it for a movie made in 1917, although the lack of sound (originally it had a score played live to the audience) does make it a little weary at times. Still it is a prime example of the art film movement of pre-soviet Russia and a timeless story of unfulfilled love.
The film has a typical "Russian ending", with almost total humiliation of the central figure, but it is not there to morally condemn Kasatsky, it's just that this was how stories like this always ended in the tragedy genre. One could see a moral lesson here, but to me what makes this movie interesting is that it doesn't seem to want to give one.
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