The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
In the seventeenth century a schism occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church as a result of its attempt to reconcile with the Greek Orthodox Church by altering or eliminating certain dogmas and practices. “Old Believers” are descendants of those who left the Church and formed Christian communities adhering to the old ways. Targets of Church and State, they scattered across the Earth.
From the Czech Republic, Jana Sevciková’s Staroverci documents current Old Believers who live a medieval existence in the Danube Delta region. The gorgeous black-and-white film opens and closes with tracking shots of bare, twisted trees, their branches shooting off in every direction as if to cull every bit of oxygen from the air. By contrast, the Old Believers interviewed stand upright in the cold while a fixed camera records their thoughts and responses. One massive tree, its thick tentacle-like roots exposed, seems to embody their life and faith.
Older people, especially devout, are nonetheless mentally agile, curious, questioning. One practical young man presages either the community’s continuation or demise. Refusing to grow a beard (as is prescribed for grown males), he will do so when he is old, and will go to church twice as often to repent the sins he is now committing!
Tracking shots along the river capture gleaming reflections of trees in the water, suggesting the natural basis for belief in the hereafter. Indeed, the primitive landscape and the people each appear to extend the other. But Sevciková undercuts the impression of utter strength and calm in a number of ways. A classroom scene is out of tune. A bellringer exhausts himself pulling cords to ring two bells simultaneously at different paces. At a barbaric baptismal ritual, an infant, screaming and crying, is immersed three times—for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
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