When treated conventionally, the artist biopic can be the domain for pedantic historical shading and subservient mise-en-scène. Veteran Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Mitta’s answer to that challenge is to translate his subject’s style so vehemently that the compulsion to inform and historicize becomes almost a distraction from the aesthetic acrobatics. Franco-Russian painter Marc Chagall, Chagall-Malevich’s principal protagonist, was a Jewish modernist who responded to the doom and gloom of his epoch with brilliantly colored, whimsically composed canvases that blended expressionist, cubist, and abstract sensibilities. In attempting to simulate Chagall’s work, Mitta whips up his own quirky jumble of techniques: conspicuously crude digital compositing, perpetual Dutch angles, sporadic animated flourishes, drastic chromatic swings, and a liberally applied cerulean vignette that surrounds the center of interest and lends those on the margins of the frame a ghastly aquarium-tank pallor.
Still, Chagall-Malevich functions well enough on a dramatic level as a play-by-play explication of a defining period in Chagall’s life: his founding of a revolutionary arts college in Vitebsk against the death rattle of World War I. A cursory impression of Chagall’s biography reveals this experience to be something of a footnote in a life rich with transnational incident; here, it’s figured as monumental. Events preceding the school’s construction—birth in a torched village, marriage to life partner Bella Rosenfeld (Kristina Schneidermann), creative self-actualization—fly by and are important only insofar as they contribute to the film’s major point about Chagall: that he was a man born in, literally, an inferno of passion from which the Soviet Union’s leading bohemian oasis was the only logical culmination. Baby-faced, theatrically inclined Leonid Bichevin plays the artist as a man of recklessly forward-thinking genius, but profound naiveté with regard to almost anything else; when he first seizes upon the crumbling building where his institution will be built, he denies the penniless prior tenants even a closet in which to live, arrogantly citing student housing as the only non-negotiable use of the space.
When the appeal of the film’s whimsy wears off, the fogginess of its historical perspectives comes to the fore.
In spite of this entitlement, successes pile up, and Mitta’s elaborately melodramatic approach makes it obvious when they do; each small victory along Chagall’s path to enlightenment triggers a spontaneous group-dance sequence. But conflict emerges with the arrival of visiting professor Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Belyy), an avant-gardist and theoretician overflowing with Christian-inflected decrees (“Observe the liturgy of form!”) on the virtues of his invented Suprematist movement, which philosophically runs counter to all art rooted in the observable world. Though Mitta’s rococo filmmaking—which transforms rather than dispenses with reality—clearly suggests he’s an advocate of Chagall, it’s hard to tell exactly where he (and the film) stands on Malevich. The severe Polish-Russian instructor is portrayed at various points as a fascistic tyrant (the ruckus he inspires in his pupils verges on proto-Nazism, as one collective hand salute makes explicit), a batty philosopher whose ideas on the role of the cosmos in art come across even less clear-headed than Chagall’s utopian ambitions, and a kind-hearted collaborator with great respect for his colleague.
When the appeal of the film’s whimsy wears off, the fogginess of these historical perspectives comes to the fore. Chagall-Malevich is dense with subplots, supporting characters, and extra-diegetic contexts, but it’s missing a through line with which to connect them meaningfully. The film is dramatically excessive, sometimes even laughably overreaching, and when it concludes with a blanket thesis statement (spoken by an out-of-nowhere omniscient narrator) that simplifies even the most self-evident of its takeaways, the emptiness of all that excess is made palpable.