Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Films of the week: Tzar and J Edgar – monsters or great men?

Still of Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar – Photo by Keith Bernstein – © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

*********J Edgar ( 2011, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I’ll start with Hoover. It’s a fantastic film and I disagree with critics’ opinion that the film doesn’t really reveal Hoover’s character or that it doesn’t explore enough Hoover’s motives and personal demons. I praise the director Eastwood, the writer Black and the actor DiCaprio for showing us in a maybe subjective way the amazing man Hoover with subtlety, so we can use our brains to make our own opinion of the FBI founder.

I knew nothing about Hoover before I saw the film. To me, Hoover was portrayed as a man I can respect for idealism, passion and hard work, and a man I can pity for his political and historical short-sightedness (I mean his paranoia regarding Communists), for his lack of courage on the personal front.
If we analyse the facts in the film it is undeniable that Hoover was a closeted gay and he was deeply ashamed of that. His high professional zeal was in part a way to compensate for vacuum in his private life.

He was close to his mother, who regarded the traditional morality superior to his son’s happiness; she once said that she’d rather see her son dead than him being subjected to public humiliation.

I’d like to contemplate on why Hoover, a brave man professionally, was a coward in personal things. Why he couldn’t even say ‘I love you’ to his soul mate, ‘I need you’ was all he could squeeze out of himself.

He always wanted to make his mother proud. And his late realisation that he’s not into girls was the last thing that could impress her. I think he blamed his mother for his cowardice, because after her death he put on her dress and pearls as an act of symbolic revenge and grief.

Deep inside he knew he was a coward, so he wanted to look a better man he was. Several episodes in the film show that he took criticism painfully; even in his memoirs he lies to make himself look more heroic.

So, Hoover was an interesting man and arguably had done a lot for his country’s security, but as a person he doesn’t earn my respect, for he couldn’t make his own life secure from his cowardice.

My major problem with the film (let’s not talk about historical accuracy) is this – I wasn’t impressed with makeup. Also, the character of Helen Gandy played by Naomi Watts remains a total mystery to me.

On a positive note, there’s another brilliant work from Leonardo DiCaprio. I think he is now ready to take on Lenin’s biopic, which could finally win him an Oscar.

******** Tzar (2009, dir. Pavel Lungin)

Russian Kinoklub often organises showings of latest influential Russian films at Apollo cinema, Piccadilly Circus, London. This time the film was Tzar, presented by the director Pavel Lungin himself. He said that his film is about a very Russian problem of ‘people in power trying to be gods in a godless country’. The story is set in the 16th century and about a conflict between the Russian Tzar Ivan the Terrible and Mitropolitan Philip (a priest).

Tzar Ivan introduced Oprichnina, a Medieval KGB, to kill off possible traitors and keep the Russian people at bay during the times of political instability and the Polish invasion. The tzar’s court including his own deputy Torquemada, Malyuta Skuratov, favoured Ivan’s chronic psychosis by constantly supplying pleading guilty traitors.

Philip, the tzar’s childhood friend, arrived in Moscow from a northern monastery to replace a runaway head of the church. He tried to soften the tzar’s soul, but the court had a bigger influence on the tzar and they called Philip a traitor. That’s how it all begins.

The tzar thought he was anointed by God, but to me he was just a deluded monster using his religious fanatism to sustain the power. He was so egocentric, he always complained to God in his regular prayers about his failures. The tzar was not a God’s person though, for he thought it was his duty to be the judge on the Earth. He said that God is too merciful to rule this land full of traitors.

It’s a big problem in Russia that monsters like Ivan the Terrible or Stalin seize the throne when they should be prevented from politics and confined to a psychiatric ward.

Tzar is a grim film full of violence. It is amazing that half a millennium after there are still countries with political regimes using tortures. Have we become any better society? Are we doomed?

Lungin answers this question by showing in the end Tzar Ivan being abandoned by his people. Maybe it means that tyrants are always lonely, maybe it’s a metaphoric saying that the evil won’t stay jubilant for long.

Despite a very tragic story at its core, the film is not negative. In depicting Philip’s character Lungin shows a different, kind and compassionate side of Russia. It shows the spirit of faith, self-sacrifice and justice, hope and love, the spirit (and I don’t mean alcohol here) that helped Russian people to survive the darkest moments in the country’s history.


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