Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958)

In all my years teetering on the brink of Russophilia, I’d never once seen any of Sergei Eisenstein’s work (not even Battleship Potemkingasp!). I remember renting Ivan the Terrible from Netflix ages and ages ago, but as so many foreign flicks do, it withered on my coffee table for months until I sent it back, probably in favor of some gory crapfest that earned a one-star rating.  In the end, perhaps it was for the best; seeing Ivan the Terrible on the big screen as part of University of Maryland’s Symposium on Cinema and Violence was a pretty incredible experience.

Pour some sugar on Ivan.

Most people have at least a general sense of the historical figure Ivan the Terrible, so I won’t bore you with a bunch of details. Part I tells the story of Ivan’s rise to power. He was crowned the first Tsar of all the Russias, determined to unify the large expanse of land, much to the dismay of the powerful Boyars. The history lesson is secondary though to how incredibly beautiful the film is. Think of any art film you’ve ever seen that was made after Ivan the Terrible and you’ll probably see roots of it here (Fellini Satyricon especially comes to mind). The film is not silent, but so much of the story is told through the expressions of its characters. Lots of raised eyebrows, sweeping gestures, suspicious glances.

Part II: seeing red.

Part I was one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite films. Part II, however, didn’t make it past the Soviet sensors, and was not released until 10 years after Eisenstein’s death. Subtitled The Boyars’ Plot, Part II focuses more on the conspiracy to murder Ivan and put his fool cousin, Vladimir, in power instead. Eisenstein experiments with color, so much of part two is tinted red, and still gorgeous.

For a three-hour-long epic, I can’t say that I was bored once. This is quite an enormous feat, as I have one of the shortest attention spans in the history of film-watching. The movie is well-paced, and just looks so darn good I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Russophilia aside, any fan of film would be seriously missing out skipping this.


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