The Conductor: Shanghai Review

Russian art film plumbs the depths of human experience through music.

Russian maverick Pavel Lungin juxtaposes the Crucifixion of Christ to the death of a son and a wide-reaching public tragedy in a thought-provoking art film that goes out on a limb but keeps its balance.

Ever-inventive Russian director Pavel Lungin continues his exploration of extreme emotions, in this case the death of a son, and the comfort, or lack thereof, afforded by religion and art in The Conductor, a simple yet mysterious tale that plumbs the depths of human tragedy without offering easy answers. Less exotic than his recent entries The Island and Tsar, which also revolved around weighty religion-tinged subjects, the story has an appealing directness and lack of overt  moralizing that will more likely connect to music lovers and fans of open-ended cinema than to those looking for a clear Christian message.  It bowed in Russia in March and started its festival career in Shanghai, where Vladas Bagdonas’s icy, unbending performance in the title role won the best actor award. 

Slow in the build-up, Lungin and Valery Pecheykin’s screenplay spends a lot of time in Moscow following a professional troupe of opera singers as they rehearse for a big concert in Jerusalem. Their backstage quarrels, love affairs and neuroses are put on hold when Maestro Slava Petrovic (Bagdonas) receives some upsetting news about his son, who has been living a sub-culture life-style in Israel. In a long-drawn-out transfer sequence that seems to be taking place in real time, everybody meets at the airport and continues their relationship problems on the plane. All the drama is saved for the last half of the film, which takes place in Jerusalem’s scenic old town and a swank auditorium, where they sing the St. Matthew Passion oratorio as dramatic events unfold outside the concert hall.

As the plot threads start to pull together, attention focuses on the conductor and his personal drama, worsened by his insensitivity, rigidity and stubborn refusal to confide in other people. In a subplot, a squalid stab at adultery by the likable singer Sergei (Karen Badalov) under his wife’s nose gets washed away by a far greater, public drama that explodes in a crowded market, forcing the viewer to step out of the private sphere and look at the bigger picture.

[pullquote]The whole film is underscored by the somber, moving oratorio composed by the current Russian Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev; yet intriguingly, instead of following its lead, the fictional tale often rejects the music’s suggestions and takes off on its own path. Indeed, it would be hard to define the film’s religious p.o.v., given the way the flighty piety of the soprano Alla (Inge Oboldina) is roundly mocked, while her atheistic husband Sergei and the irascible old conductor are much more appealing characters.

Adding to the film’s modern look are the carefully handled technical credits and some memorable imagery, like the conductor carrying a giant painting of a naked corpse up the hills of Jerusalem, only to throw off his cross in a moment of sudden exasperation.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Pavel Lungin Studio, Vassilevs Picture Production
Cast: Vladas Bagdonas, Inga Oboldina, Karen Badalov, Sergei Koltakov, Daria Moroz
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenwriters: Pavel Lungin, Valery Pecheykin
Producers:  Pavel Lungin, Evgeny Panfilov
Directors of photography: Igor Grinyakin, Aleksandr Simonov
Production designers: Marat Kim, Olga Kravchenya
Costumes:Natalia Kanevskaya
Editor: Karolina Maciejewska
Music: Hilarion Alfeyev
Sales agent: Pavel Lungin Studios
No rating, 88’ minutes.