Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom): Rome Review

German’s bold decision to throw out the storyline to create an unseen world on-screen results in a nearly incomprehensible work.

The final film by late Russian director Aleksei German is based on the Strugatsky brother’s revered sci-fi novel.

A legendary film some 30 years in the creative making and long awaited by film cognoscenti has finally been unveiled. But Hard to Be a God, a work that would have been revolutionary in the Eighties, no longer feels all that cutting edge; it simply feels frustratingly incomprehensible. While advances in CGI have made highly detailed alternate universes commonplace on screen, the idea here is not entertainment, and the non-stop onslaught of revolting imagery is enough to turn off any viewer with a slightly queasy stomach. In any case, familiarity with the 1964 cult novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky on which it is based, or at least a detailed plot summary of the book, is a must before approaching Aleksei German’s three-hour black-and-white opus, which is even more confusing, if possible, than its 1998 predecessor Khrustalyov, My Car! This is the kind of film that can only play as a special event like its world premiere at the Rome Film Festival, where German was honored posthumously with a career award.

One of Russia’s greatest directors, whose reputation rests mainly on three brilliant and highly influential films shot during the Soviet era, Aleksei German (1938-2013) didn’t live to see the release of his final film. It was completed by his wife and long-time screenwriter Svetlana Karmelita and his son Aleksei A. German, also a film director. In the works since 1984, the film didn’t begin shooting until 2006, years after the release of Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 Soviet-German adaptation of the novel, which has also spawned a role-playing video game and a stage play written by the authors. It's likely that special screenings could attract die-hard Strugatsky fans who, knowing the story beforehand, can get something out of the film.

For the record, the Strugatsky brothers (who famously inspired the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, part of cinema’s sci-fi pantheon) abandoned their collaboration with Fleischmann and championed German’s work-in-progress. One wonders what they would make of the completed film, which opens without a fare-thee-well on the planet Arkanar, inhabited by human beings who live like Earthlings in the Middle Ages. A stone village with a castle has been turned by rain into muddy sludge mixed with human and animal droppings. The yucky stuff covers the skin and clothes of the populace. In weird and imaginative Medieval garb, they sport a collection of carnival faces and all seem feeble-minded as well as physically deformed.

Towering above them morally as well as physically is the big, strong Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), popularly considered to be the son of a pagan god. Actually there are few signs of superhuman powers; his brains and unparalleled sword play keep him alive. Yet the screenplay is so stubbornly impenetrable that few will realize he is one of thirty scientists sent from Earth to get Arkanar moving forward socially and politically. Many viewers will reach the end of the film still wondering if he could possibly be a god in disguise. This basic misunderstanding, which undermines the whole story, could easily be cleared up at the beginning.

But even then, the rest of the cast would still be a big blur. There is a certain Dr. Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) who Don Rumata tries to protect him from the powers-that-be, known as the Greys. They are intent on murdering all “wise men” (i.e., artists, scientists and intellectuals) in gory, disgusting ways, like drowning an old man head-first in a public toilet and pouring molten liquid over hanged men. It’s hard to tell what’s going on most of the time in the incredibly cluttered images, which are works of art in themselves, lit in very expressive black and white by cinematographers Vladimir Ilyin and Yuri Klimenko.

Another character who comes into focus is Baron Pampa (Yuriy Tsurilo), sized like Obelix and batty as a comic book character.  Don Rumata bears an obvious affection for him, saving his abundant skin several times. Less clearly delineated is his antagonist Don Reba (Alexandr Chutko), who rules the fascist police state and warily spars with the god-like Don Rumata.  

Having decided to put the plot in the background, where it disappears in a wealth of overlapping visual detail, German does succeed in his announced intent to create a complete world onscreen, one that resembles the Middle Ages but without chivalry, courtiers, knights or ladies, without troubadours or artists, without churches or God. (There is however an army of the Holy Orders that wreaks death and havoc.) Only the bad and ugly are left in this anti-world filled with the dregs of humanity, a world without any kind of tenderness or love.

While there are implicit references to the horrors of the Soviet and post-Soviet state and to the 20th century in general, this monstrously overflowing film seems to aim even higher. Its theme might be the impossibility of creating any civilization, a task that seems to elude mankind generation after generation. Why this should be so is shown in the shadowy characters' urge for power and domination at any cost. These points actually come across sans a bona fide story.

Veteran actor Yarmolnik (We Are Family) gives the performance of a lifetime as the raging Don Rumata, who with his silly joking and far-reaching compassion is more human than any other character. He even has an accomplished moment playing a jazz trumpet. Though he’s the best fighter of all, he never kills anyone until he’s pushed too far. But unlike the code of the Old West, here revenge isn’t the best idea. The rest of the cast gamely throws itself into the demands of role-playing and heavy make-up sessions. Costume designer Yekaterina Shapkaitz and the multiple production designers do a hats-off job creating the film’s unified look of grit and grime, a kind of outhouse esthetic filled with excrement, vomit, spit, blood and spilling guts. Editing likewise goes all-out, avoiding a single quiet moment in almost three hours of running time.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Studio Sever, Russia 1 TV
Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuriy Tsurilo, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Natalia Moteva, Dmitriy Vladimirov
Director: Aleksei German
Screenwriters: Svetlana Karmalita, Aleksei German based on a novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Producers: Viktor Izvekov, Rushan Nasibulin
Directors of photography: Vladimir Ilyin, Yuri Klimenko
Production designers: Sergei Kokovkin, Georgi Kropachev, E. Zhukova
Costumes: Yekaterina Shapkaitz
Story editor: Yevgeny Pritzker
Film editors: Irina Gorokhovskaya, Maria Amosova

Music: Viktor Lebedev
Sales agent: Studio Sever
No rating, 177 minutes.