Tsar -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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CANNES -- Both spectacular and pious, "Tsar" positions itself between Sergei Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" and Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev," though without their originality and inspiration.

Still, this new Russian film is a rich-looking historical epic set in 16th century Moscow, then little more than a fortified village, where the forces of good and evil square off in an epic struggle between the spiritual monk Filipp and his childhood friend Ivan.

Director Pavel Lungin is on the same mystical-religious page as his 2006 "The Island," though the current film should have more commercial muscle given its infamous subject and high production values, which give a gloss even to the grisly torture scenes.

The opening titles quickly fill viewers in with basic background info: Ivan, tsar of all Russia, is reigning with terror, surrounded by his personal guards called the Tsars' Dogs. Their symbol is a severed dog's head tied to their saddles, and that's one of the better things that can be said about them.

The whole country is in a bloody war with Poland when the bishop Filipp (Oleg Yankovski) arrives in town. His path crosses Ivan's (Pyotr Mamonov) on a narrow bridge, and the tsar takes it as a sign that Filipp is meant to become the new Metropolitan of Moscow, head of the Orthodox church.

The noble-minded Filipp reluctantly accepts investiture, but his hopes to soften the mad Tsar's cruelty prove vain. When the Russian army loses an important city to the Poles, Ivan orders the generals impaled and their horses cut into pieces. Filipp warns the generals not to return to Moscow, but they are found out, and he is forced to watch while they are eaten by the tsar's pet grizzly bear.

The film is divided into chapters, and the final scenes plunge into mysticism and miracles, as Filipp loses favor with the tsar and is imprisoned. Ending is suitably spectacular.

In the role immortalized for Eisenstein by Nikolai Cherkasov, Mamonov (who played the leading role in "The Island") offers an almost realistic portrayal of the mad tsar obsessed with God, who breaks every commandment in the book and is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. Yankovski has the weighty authority to stare him down, though his fearlessness -- like that of his loyal monks, who choose death to be close to him -- is iconic, not human.

Lungin's confident direction is capable of keeping audiences interested in hackneyed genre elements, like the little blond girl who becomes the symbol of purity, or Filipp's nephew who dies under torture rather than betray him. There is also a mad jester and beautiful, sadistic Tsarina (Anastasiya Dontsova) to outdo the cruelty of the Tsar's Dogs and his chief torturer (Yuri Kuzetsov).

Tom Stern's cinematography, majestic in the outdoor scenes of the Russian countryside, timidly imitates the extreme camera angles and disquieting, stylized architecture of Eisenstein's two "Ivan the Terrible" classics released in 1944 and 1958. Sergei Ivanov's striking production design, paired with the gorgeous costumes designed by Natalia Dzudenko and Yekaterina Dyminskaya and Yuri Krassazin's epic score, give the film a stamp of great quality.

Festival de Cannes -- Un Certain Regard

Production company: Profit-Cinema, SPL Film
Sales Agent: Rezo Films, Paris

Cast: Pyotr Mamonov, Oleg Yankovski, Anastasiya Dontsova, Yuri Kuzetsov.
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenwriters: Alexei Ivanov, Pavel Lungin;
Producers: Pavel Lungin, Olga Vasilieva;
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Sergei Ivanov
Music: Yuri Krassazin
Costumes: Natalia Dzudenko, Yekaterina Dyminskaya
Editor: Albina Antipenko

No rating, 114 minutes.