WAR AND PEACE (Sergei Bondarchuk) Rating: NNNN
Leo Tolstoy and his War And Peace are back in the zeitgeist. A bold new translation by the folks who made Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina an Oprah’s Book Club pick sits proudly on Chapdigo displays. This fall, the Canadian Opera Company ambitiously tackles Prokofiev’s operatic version of the novel. And now Cinematheque is screening all seven-plus hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s film version over two nights or one marathon Sunday.
Bondarchuk’s epic won the best foreign-language film Oscar back in 1969 (it was originally released in 1967), even in a severely cut (not to mention annoyingly dubbed) version. Cinematheque is showing the original, longer Russian-language version, and it really is, as James Quant says in the program notes, an “immersive” film experience.
What better way to spend a winter’s day or night than with three of literature’s most compelling characters – philosophical Pierre, man of action Andrei and the woman they both love, Natasha – as Napoleon invades Russia?
The best reason to see the film is the grand scenes on battlefields and in ballrooms. In the former, those are real landscapes, populated by thousands of actual people.
Bondarchuk hired 100,000 extras from the Soviet army, and it shows.
We’ve become so used to computer-generated battles and painted backdrops that these scenes elicit gasps of awe and wonder. The choreography and smoke effects alone are staggering.
The colourful, lively ballroom scenes provide a nice contrast to the brutal carnage. It helps that Lyudmila Savelyeva, who plays Natasha, comes from the ballet world. Her light-footedness extends to her effortless acting style.
Bondarchuk himself plays Pierre, and although he looks more suitably plump than that beanpole Henry Fonda (in the lesser film version), he’s maddeningly recessive; you never get a good take on his character.
Some parts don’t work. A very symbolic oak tree signifies despair marvellously on the page, but onscreen it just looks like an old oak tree. And dizzying shots of the sky and clouds just can’t capture Tolstoy’s metaphysical poetry.
Still, in today’s dollars, this film – the Soviets’ answer to Titanic – would have cost $700 million to make. All that money’s up there on the screen.