Dir/prod. Pavel Lungin. France. 2009. 116mins

It takes a brave filmmaker to follow in the footsteps of Sergei Eisenstein. Pavel Lungin has the daring and the resources (a reported $15million budget) but Tsar is likely to remain merely an intriguing but far from satisfying footnote to the Eisenstein classic Ivan The Terrible. Lungin focuses on Ivan The Terrible’s relationship with Philip the Metropolitan of Moscow and what became a defining moment in the struggle for the soul of Russia.

The mix of personal psychology and the wider machinations of the conflict between church and state lends the film a strange ‘ Sokurov meets The Tudors’ vibe that will please neither lovers of conventional costume drama nor those in search of more trenchant fare. Lungin’s reputation may attract interest in some territories (France, Russia) but Tsar is likely to face an uphill struggle in most markets.

Described by Lungin as a metaphor for Russia past and present, Tsar begins in 1565 as Tsar Ivan IV (Pyotr Mamonov) grows increasingly paranoid at the threat to his territory from both advancing Polish armies and internal enemies. A personal militia is created to keep the peace but the bloodshed and injustices it perpetrates prompt the head of the Russian Church to resign. The Tsar appoints his childhood friend Philip (Oleg Yankovski) as replacement. Philip’s honesty and devotion place him at odds with a ruler who has come to consider himself God’s representative on earth. Ivan even declares that there is “no greater sin than disobeying the will of the Tsar.”

Distinguished by the painterly compositions of cinematographer Tom Stern, Tsar is a handsome-looking enterprise but suffers from something of an identity crisis. On one level it offers the traditional delights of an old- fashioned costume drama including lusty hand-to-hand-combat, thundering hooves across snow-dusted plains, condemned men fighting for their lives against the might of a ferocious bear and suitably demented lackeys who will follow their leader to hell and back. An appearance from Jack Palance or Anthony Quinn would not seem out of place.

On a different level, the film strives to get inside the mind of the Tsar, shifting into Shakespearean territory as he confronts the dark demons of his imagination in the draughty corridors of a dark palace. The two contrasting approaches never gel in a tale that seems to lurch from extremes, especially as the tone of The Tsar grows increasingly overwrought. One moment armies are engaged in mortal combat, the next the Tsar is being carried aloft through white clouds of Spring blossom. That may very well reflect the reality of 16th century Russia but it makes for an indigestible narrative.

The two leading actors provide a suitable study in contrasts with Yankovski bringing a quiet dignity to his man of faith and Mamonov relishing the wild-eyed excesses of his rampant tyrant. Mamonov delivers more than a one-note performance though, conveying some sense of the ruler’s doubts and the very human failings that he is only too willing too sweep aside for the greater good of his long-suffering people. The clash between earthly power and loyalty to a higher calling resembles the heart of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons but Lungin’s film has neither the focus nor dramatic force to match that Oscar-winning classic.

Production Company
SPL Film

International sales
(33) 1 42 46 90 10

Alexey Ivanov
Pavel Lungin

Tom Stern

Albina Antipenko

Production design
Sergey Ivanov

Youri Krassavin

Main cast
Pyotr Mamonov
Oleg Yankovsky
Aleksandr Domogarov
Alexey Makarov
Ivan Okhlobystin