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
Zvenigora launched Aleksandr Dovzhenko as cinema’s “poet of the Ukraine.”
During the Ukrainian Civil War, a man tells grandsons stories of far away, long ago, including one about buried treasure. One boy as a result ends up fighting for the revolutionary cause. The other, identifying only with narrow self-interest, becomes a seeker of fortune and a counter-revolutionary. The latter, who has attempted to make a profit by advertising his suicide in a theatrical venue, ends up, later, an actual suicide.
One of the film’s themes, then, is the power of art—for good or ill. The grandfather’s story-telling, richly mining Ukrainian folklore, inspires both boys, providing a repugnant example of greed for one and a seductive example of it for the other. One boy affirms life; the other courts death. The two boys in Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), Vasili and the kulak’s son who kills him, will be, in effect, transmutations of the grandsons in Zvenigora. In addition, Zvenigora questions whether Soviet ideology speaks to what is innate in humans. Does Communism express or seek to correct what is naturally human?
Zvenigora plunges us into images that correspond to the grandfather’s stories rather than showing him reciting these stories. The first thing we see is a train of galloping cossacks in slow motion. Thus the film announced, for 1920s audiences, the remarkably original film they were about to view. Zvenigora is delirious with experimentation, including rapidly edited sequences and the fantastic use of double exposures.
But the film is also trenchant, as when a soldier directs his own execution, and real as well as fabulous, as in its industrial montage and in a majestic shot of men working in the fields, their unconsciously synchronized swings of the scythe creating an indelible image of the shared lot of laboring humanity.
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