By Nikola Grozdanovic reporting from the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal.
"Shame." "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." "Carnage." "Alps." All of these films have one thing in common. None of them left this year’s Venice Film Festival with the Golden Lion. They are among the illustrious group of films that everyone is either praising or hotly anticipating, and yet they came up short at one of the world’s most prestigious fests. The winner was a film that, this writer wagers, not a lot of people even heard about until the announcement. Alexander Sokurov’s "Faust." Huh?
Once you de-thread the ball of mystery, the reasoning is a little clearer. Sokurov has been in the game a long time. Back in Russia, and also abroad, he is touted as the living and breathing Tarkovsky, and to those who consider themselves ardent festival followers, he is a household name. Four of his films made their debut at Cannes and he’s won awards at Locarno and TIFF. At the age of 60 and after 8 feature length films (among countless documentaries and mini-series), Sokurov created fans but never received a big award. His greatest before coming to Venice this year was the Leopard of Honor for lifetime achievement in Locarno. Adding to that, "Faust" caps off a passion project for the director. His trilogy on power, focusing on key historical megalomaniacs of the 20th century, was concluded with "The Sun" (focusing on Hiroshito, the Japanese emperor during WWII. The others were Moloch on Hitler and Taurus on Lenin) in 2004. Faust was made as a companion piece to make it a tetralogy and with that, but is it actually any good? “Weird” might be a better word for it.
The film beings with an aerial shot of the clouds, where a mirror hangs suspended in air and a piece of paper floats toward the land. As it meanders downwards, we are treated to a beautiful landscape that perfectly divides evil (dark clouds, the moon, bits of thunder) and good (sunshine, green pastures, birds). It’s like a visual equivalent worthy of a section from Milton’s "Paradise Lost." The next shot comes into focus, after a dream-like dissolve, to reveal a close-up of a penis. A dead penis, belonging to a corpse that Dr. Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and his mentally challenged assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) are examining and disemboweling. Faust is in search for the soul, which he desperately needs scientific proof of, in order to understand the meaning of life. And that my friends, is the perfect opening for this film, which is more like a distant cousin four times removed from Goethe’s classic tale than an adaptation. A cousin that would resemble the bastard offspring conjured up in a threesome between Terry Gilliam, early David Cronenberg and Immanuel Kant.
Faust needs money in order to continue with his scientific explorations. After being shooed away by his perverse father, who loves his profession when it comes to gynecology, he finds the moneylender Mauricio (Anton Adasinskiy), who takes a keen interest in him, despite refusing everything Faust offers to pawn. The adventures these two have together comprise most of the film, that in the second half concentrates on Faust’s obsession with Margarite (Isolda Dychauk), a peasant beauty who mourns the loss of her soldier brother.
In its 130 minutes, "Faust" seems to cover every subject under the sun, from politics to power, sexual obsession, money, philosophy (of course), religion and the list goes on. One of the turn offs would in fact be that you walk away overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that was spewed back forth between the moneylender and Faust. It is so dialogue-heavy that the subtitles at times trip over themselves as you try to speed-read through them. Lines of brilliance shine through (when Margarite tells Faust that his assistant seemed very nervous, Faust says “He is a philosopher. He’s naturally nervous”) and the comedy peppered throughout ranges from slapstick (the moneylender deciding to take a vocal shit in the church) to grotesque (Wagner’s living homunculus) to bizarre (an orange monkey dancing on the surface of the moon).
The acting from the principal actors is impressive. Zeiler’s Faust is not a particularly likeable character but there is a kindness and genuine loss displayed in his gestures and actions that make you support him. The standout is Adasinkiy, whose devil is almost appalling to look at (a bathhouse scene shows his naked body that makes Jabba the Hut look like Pierce Brosnan) but endlessly fascinating to listen to. His ruminations on religion and the actions he takes to show his attitude toward God are a hilariously uncomfortable highlight. The two main characters overshadow the rest of the cast but Dychauk’s ethereal beauty provides for the most appealing visual in the whole story.
So, what about the visuals then? In that department, Faust is as bizarre as ever. Like the opening sequence, exterior shots of the forest or volcanic land are captivating while the interior dinginess of dust and cobwebs in taverns, houses and bars are almost suffocating. The art direction is highlighted by brief appearances of a woman (Hanna Schygulla) who follows Mauricio around in comical fashion and wearing ridiculous hats, claiming to be his wife. The philosophical meaning behind her existence in the story puzzles you, yet you can’t take your eyes away from her when she’s on screen.
Darren Aronoskfy, president of the Venice Film Festival this year, stated that "Faust" received top honors because it is a film you cannot forget once you’ve seen it. In a way, he’s right, though this writer still doubts whether the memory you are left with is a fond one. If there are strokes of genius in this film, they are buried deep under the grime of the aesthetics and the unrelenting dialogue that never seems to stop for air. Sokurov is largely remembered for "Russian Ark," the semi-historical story filmed in one take, which confused with its subject matter but amazed with its technical prowess. After "Faust" that hybrid mixture of confusion and amazement is still there, but it will take the patience of a devote fan of the director’s work to try and unearth the brilliance behind his latest examination of human folly. [B-]