It takes about seven hours to watch Sergei Bondarchuk's War And Peace. That's no small investment of time. You can fly from Toronto to London in seven hours, and you get breakfast and a snack.
Cinematheque Ontario will not be providing snacks when they screen Bondarchuk's magnum opus this weekend, as a tie-in with the Canadian Opera Company's production of Profokiev's opera adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel. But they do break it up over two days, which helps.
Believe me, you'll need to get up and stretch your legs between sections of War And Peace, which is moviemaking on an unprecedented scale.
Produced by the state-owned Mosfilm studio, it's one of the few films that can honestly claim no expense was spared in its making. The legions of extras were borrowed from the Soviet military; the budget, we're told, would be something like $700 million in today's dollars - a drop in the bucket if you're bailing out the American financial system, but serious coin in Hollywood terms.
Bondarchuk was commissioned to make the great Soviet film from the great Russian novel, and he went at his task full-throttle. War And Peace is epic in every sense of the word - obsessively detailed, sprawling in scope, overwhelming in presentation. If Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris is the great Soviet art film, this is the great Soviet crowd-pleaser, full of swooning romance and thrilling battle. Roger Ebert called it "the definitive epic of all time" in a 1969 review, and I know just what he meant by that - even though he saw the shorter, English-dubbed version.
Okay, it isn't perfect. Some of the performances are regrettably outsized, as though the actors thought the only way to be noticed amidst the sheer size of Bondarchuk's vision was to puff themselves up like bullfrogs. That said, the production design is kind of oppressive; even the banquet scenes are obsessively decorated right down to every last fold of lace on the tablecloths.
But the bones of Tolstoy's novel are just about unbreakable. As a great man once said, it's possible to read the book and come away thinking of it as nothing more than a simple adventure story - which certainly makes for a thrilling movie. But there's so much more going on, and it's a pleasure to be swept away in it. The movie is bigger than life, in almost every way that matters.
Cinematheque is screening War And Peace in two sections. Parts One and Two play tonight (Friday) at 7 pm, with Parts Three and Four following tomorrow (Saturday) at 7 pm.
A second screening offers Parts One and Two at 1 pm Sunday, and Parts Three and Four at 7 pm Monday. This is the complete version, in Russian with English subtitles. If you've only seen the shorter, English version, take my word for it: You haven't seen it at all.