SECOND CIRCLE (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990)

What, if anything, does Aleksandr Sokurov’s Krug vtoroy have to do with Dante’s second circle of Hell, to which those who lusted, such as Francesca and her brother-in-law, are consigned? Regardless, the film is visually transparent, with its color repressed almost to the point of monochrome. This is, after all, a film in which a young man attends to the details of burying his father. This includes a draining confrontation with insensible bureaucracy. The colors, then, suit a consciousness steeped in a sense of mortality, without recourse to the spirituality that might enable the man to bring his grief to fruition and retain a sense of an indestructible spiritual bond with his father. Sokurov, of course, intends a criticism of the Soviet Union, which hasn’t been hospitable to Russia’s historic Orthodox Christianity. In something of a visual coup, Sokurov conjoins his wan colors with deep contrasts of light and dark, thus managing simultaneously to suggest a suppression of spirit and the attendance of spirit that is being suppressed! Films do not get more formally brilliant than this.
     The pre-credit opening is staggering. Walking towards the camera, the man proceeds through a whited-out landscape during a blizzard. When it grows more intense, the dark figure crouches to withstand the storm. The sound of the storm continues as the credits appear. Thus Sokurov stresses the primacy of the individual, while the storm suggests the social and political forces arrayed against the individual that deny this primacy. We may well imagine as we watch the opening that we are looking directly at the spirit of the man.
     For me, though, this is an arid, arduous film that only too successfully realizes its formal/thematic aims. The protagonist’s Kafkaesque ordeal of getting Father buried is painfully rendered in painstaking detail.

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