Monday, September 14, 2009

Arsenal (Alexander Dovzhenko) **1/2

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko

Cast: Semyon Svashenko, Amvrosi Buchma, Georgi Khorkov, Dmitri Erdman

Background: Dovzhenko had only been directing movies for three years when he made Arsenal, and it was the second of his planned Ukrainian trilogy, the first being the previous year's Zvenigora.

Story: A Ukrainian soldier (Svashenko) returns after seeing the horrors of war, but when he gets back home he begins to challenge the local authorities who have claimed independence from the Soviet Union.

Thoughts: Like other Russian films of this era, such as The End of St. Petersburg, this is not a straightforward affair. Dovzhenko uses lots of symbolism and odd camera angles to make his point. The story is thankfully fairly linear once he gets down to telling it, but the real issue I had with this film is the message. Dovzhenko goes overboard in making the obvious answer that independence is a stupid idea for the Ukrainians. It's certainly understandable that there was no way he could come from another perspective while making a film in the Soviet Union, but he does himself a disservice in the way he makes his argument. The film has been praised for ambiguity, but there's nothing ambiguous about the contrast he shows between the heroic Marxists and the bald and bearded evil Ukrainian capitalists. Hell, Kerensky comes off better in Eisenstein's October than they do here. I would've preferred some more dimensions being explored. But sure, it's impossible to deny that the film is beautifully made. Dovzhenko is clearly a technical master with superior editing skill and understands everything you can do with a camera.

Postscript: Dovzhenko would complete the trilogy the next year with Earth, a film about collective farming that is even more highly regarded than this one.

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