At the Brattle
Beginning in 1598, Russia came upon a "Time of Troubles" that lasted well into the next century. After the death of Ivan the Terrible's only heir, the boyar nobles chose Boris Godunov to be the next Tsar. But Boris' hesitation and uncertainty soon gave rise to the rumor that he had killed Ivan's younger brother, Dmitri, to insure his own succession. After seven years a pretender appeared, calling himself Dmitri. Aided by the continued unrest of the boyars and peasants and by a Polish army, this false Dmitri managed to defeat Boris Godunov and seize the throne before he too was killed and succeeded by another false Dmitri who was, likewise, soon assassinated.
The new (1955) Soviet production of Boris Godunov is based on Moussorgsky's opera, which is based on Pushkin's folk-drama, which is based on these events.
It is an exciting, noisy spectacle. In the movie there is no doubt about Boris Godunov's guilt in the murder of Prince Dmitri: "Holy Russia groans under the guilty rule of an accursed regicide." Boris is the first to voice his own guilt. He makes his shame explicit in introspections which he carries on at the top of his lungs. Most of the other actors are no more pretentious about the "dramatic" roles.
However, there are comic scenes, and Alexander Pirogov's Boris manages a few of these, though he is habitually massive-browed and troubled. ("Yet happiness eludes my sad, my tortured soul.") In one of the most delightful scenes, his minister, Prince Shuisky, guilefully played by N. Khanayev, reports that the pretender's forces are nearing Moscow. Catching the drift of the wind. Boris remarks that there is no pretender, the pretender Dmitri is the sovereign, "and Shuisky for perjury shall be quartered."
While Pirogov and most of the others are loudly verbalizing their predicaments or laying cluttered schemes, I. Koslovsky, as the fool, offers the film's most subtle performance. He appears just twice--first to accuse Boris in a soft, demented idiot's song and then at the end to lament Russia's unrule. Boris Godunov has come and gone, Dmitri has left the land in flames and he, too, will soon be murdered; nothing has changed.
Director Vera Stroyeva has made an exciting and surprisingly fast-paced spectacle out of the opera, and at the end even succeeds in inserting a plug for the People's Republic as, "Ever rising, ever spreading, grows the people's might." While the movie is advertised as featuring the chorus, orchestra, and ballet of the Bolshoi Opera Theatre, the ballet seems to have disappeared from this version. But Moussorgsky's music, drawn mostly from Russian folk songs, is exciting and plentiful. The color, too, is excellent--not like the red and blue "technicolor" of older Russian films. There is another Soviet film on the bill, an explication de peinture called "The Sistine Madonna," which, fortunately, is not long.