Judge Mike Rubino missed that chapter on unicorns in his Russian history course.
The tsar is dead. Chaos reigns.
When I took Russian history in college, they didn't say anything about unicorns. Yet here comes 1612, a Russian-made epic about the country's oft-forgotten "Time of Troubles." It's brimming with unicorns! It's also filled with a ton of blood, ghosts, and revisionist propaganda…
Facts of the Case
1612 takes place during Russia's "Time of Troubles," a roughly fifteen-year period in which the country was in complete turmoil: scads of people were claiming to be tsars, there was a massive famine, and invaders were pillaging the countryside. Then to make matters worse, the only guy who may actually be in charge, Tsar Boris Godunov, gets assassinated.
A young serf named Andrey (Pyotr Kislov) witnessed the assassination. He also saw the Tsar's daughter, Ksenia (Violetta Davydovskaya), get whisked away by the Polish army. Now, ten years later, Andrey's a grown man out to save Ksenia and restore his country's sovereignty. He assumes the identity of a Spanish mercenary, infiltrates the Polish army, and teams up with a fort of Russian peasants to save Moscow.
1612 is one dense mess of a film. This epic tries to cram a ton of historical events from the early 17th Century into a two and a half hour runtime, while simultaneously mixing things up with a heavy dose of Orthodox theology and unicorn-laden fantasy. Perhaps it just feels like a mess because I'm a Westerner looking in, but the more I think about it, the more I've decided that the movie is just a mess in general.
Part of the problem comes from the film's creative liberties and forced proletarian sensibilities. The character of Andrey, who we first meet as a slave, is Robin Hood-esque in his sudden ability to rise up from his serf class, pose as a swash-buckling Spanish mercenary, and fight off a hoard of Polish warriors in ridiculously goofy armor. For a movie filled with Russian pride, it borrows heavily from Western films like The Lord of the Rings, Rio Bravo, and Braveheart in both its story and its visual style. 1612 was paid for by the Russian government, and released just as Vladimir Putin was seeking election in 2007, so it's no wonder that the story is extremely patriotic. It's allowed to be, of course (the United States certainly has its share of patriotic films: Team America anyone?), but in the end the plot and the film's pacing suffers because of a forced message. So much is made of this massive battle for Moscow, and yet it's relegated to essentially a wrap-up montage at the end of the film so that the boyars can (s)elect a new tsar.
1612 is tries to be a Cossack of all trades, but ends up a master of none. Aside from the increasingly brutal and gory battle scenes, it's also a romance and a religious film. The romantic angle, between the Andrey the Serf and Ksenia the Tsarina, is hackneyed and generally boring. Kisvol plays Andrey with a believable sense of romanticism, akin to Orlando Bloom; however, Ksenia is a cold, uninteresting princess with very little going for her. It's hard to really get behind any character in the film except for Andrey, and to a lesser extent his Spanish-ghost-mentor Alvar. While all this love and war is going on, there's a minor subplot about the religious struggle between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. The priest, sent by the Pope, isn't exactly thrilled to be hanging around in the mud and sticks of the peasant villages, and his counterpart, "Orthodox Gandalf," spends much of his time predicting the future while meditating on a pillar in the woods. Also, there's a unicorn which seems to have its own unspoken plotline, showing up from time to time to drink from a stream or something. I'm sure there's some symbolism there, or maybe it's just a vague Blade Runner reference.
The Time of Troubles was a very tumultuous and confusing period for Russia—and could have been fodder for a great epic. Unfortunately the inclusion of some proletariat revisionism, lame subplots, and a screen-hogging unicorn means that this movie isn't even worth checking out for historical purposes.
1612 does have an interesting look to it, thanks to director Vladimir Khotinenko and cinematographer Ilya Dyomin. The film has a very saturated, bold color palette, which is mixed with some intense depictions of torture and war. Heck, at one point a cannonball breaks a horse's leg; in another scene, the camera lingers a bit too long on a freshly beheaded Polish soldier. Unlike something like 300, which glorified violence in a stylistic (read: cartoony) way, 1612 glorifies it in a very obscene and realistic way. It's not for the faint of heart.
It does look good, at least in terms of the DVD transfer. The video and colors are sharp, although there are occasional instances of cheap CGI and low-end digital tape. The sound, surround and stereo, is only in Russian with English subtitles. That can make this 143-minute journey just a tad rougher. The din of war comes through just fine, but I was surprised that the score is generally unremarkable and at times far too quiet. It's evident in all aspects of the production that this wasn't a small-budget indie picture.
The DVD does come with a rather lengthy making-of featurette complete with behind-the-scenes handicam footage and interviews with the cast and crew. It, too, is in Russian with English subtitles. I would have liked to have liked to have seen some featurettes dealing with the true history surrounding the Time of Troubles (since this DVD is marketed and presented in a way to be attractive to Western audiences, something made specifically for the outsider-looking-in would have been welcomed). Then again, given that this movie is all about glorifying the good stuff that happened in Russian history, and ignoring much of the bad, that doesn't really fit with theme.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
1612 isn't completely awful. In fact, if you're looking for a decent amount of action—from massive battle sequences to one-on-one sword duelin'—this movie's got it. There are plenty of intensely choreographed fights, and some pretty explosions, if you're ready to ignore the actual plot. It's also quite possible that if you are from Russia, and find some meaning in a very thirsty unicorn, you'll probably dig this.
1612 is a classic example of why governments probably shouldn't pay for movies, especially around election time. This film is a gory mess of plotlines, Hollywood imagery, and unlikable characters without any redeeming story structure. There are a lot of explosions, though.
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