Suffice to say that Elem Klimov’s biopic of the mad monk Grigori Rasputin (Aleksei Petrenko) more than lives up to its title. Nearly a decade elapsed between the director’s second feature, The Adventures of a Dentist, and Agony (a.k.a. Rasputin), a delay partly attributable to the renewed difficulties of cinema production in the post-thaw Soviet era. The film’s troubles continued even after its completion in 1975: it was shelved for six years, then released at home and abroad in several severely truncated versions. Such behind-the-scenes complications, coupled with such blatant and willful displays of censorship, breed a knee-jerk desire to unequivocally defend the work in question, but there is no getting around the fact that, even in its uncut form, Agony is a resounding failure. Klimov’s canvases always teeter on the edge of madness (and in his summative masterpiece, Come and See, topple brazenly and unapologetically into the abyss), but—despite the promise of Agony‘s blood-red floral title sequence—the film’s ultra-widescreen compositions play out from a frustratingly safe and dispassionate distance. Petrenko impressively gnashes and wails his way through the proceedings (certainly no actor has ever flung a live, squealing pig across screen with as much vim and vigor) while Klimov strikingly illustrates the waning days of the Romanov dynasty by intercutting period news footage with fictional reenactments—as well as by schizophrenically switching between saturated and color-drained film stocks. Yet the aesthetic insanity remains consistently stodgy and academic when, like the hemophilia afflicting Rasputin’s royal charge Tsarevich Alexei, it would do better to infect the frame, forcing the film’s very potent themes to bleed out through a raw, phlebotomized surface.
- 152 min
- Elem Klimov
- Semyon Lungin, Ilya Nusinov
- Aleksei Petrenko, Anatoli Romashin, Velta Line, Alisa Frejndlikh, Aleksandr Romantsov, Yuri Katin-Yartsev, Leonid Bronevoy, Pavel Pankov, Mikhail Danilov, Mikhail Svetin, Nelli Pshyonnaya, Aleksei Vanin, Lyudmila Polyakova, Olga Grigoryeva, Boris Romanov, Sergei Muchenikov, Aleksandr Pavlov, Baiten Omarov, Vladimir Osenev
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