Andrei Proshkin's The Horde, a grim, exhausting, bloody philosophical work set during the reign of the Mongolian Empire in 1350s, might perplex interested audiences based on how it's presented in promo materials. Appearing to be a suspense-driven historical drama in its trailer, broken up by semi-lavish ritual set pieces and sprawling glimpses at the Golden Horde's ramshackle city, it becomes something vastly different once it arrives at the narrative's core interests. Superstition, crises of faith, and the merciful will of a higher being become its focus, namely how they relate to a prominent Christian's ability to work literal miracles in order to suppress the conquest of ruthless warmongers. While this might jibe with how Saint Alexius indirectly impacted the spread of the Mongols, the film's heavy tone and nihilistic outlook become more burdensome than enlightening. Instead of informing, those facets bludgeon the audience with expressions of spiritual futility.
After Proshkin reveals how power-shifting between the khans occurs in the Tatars of the Mongolian Empire, transferring to Jinabeg through murder in a public setting, The Horde then focuses on the events in 1357 that lead up to the khan's influential mother, Queen Taidula, losing her eyesight. After a slew of other mystical clerics fail in their endeavors to heal her, a group of Mongolian emissaries travel to neighboring Russia in order to seek out Saint Alexius, the Metropolitan of Moscow and a known miracle worker. Under the threat -- and fear -- of a Tatar invasion, the holy man travels to the Golden Horde's vast, harsh city, where prisoners of war are either decapitated for being too tall for their limited food stores or sent into demanding slave labor. There, with his assistant, he attempts to heal Queen Taidula's ailment as the potential for a European invasion looms in the balance, effectively putting Moscow in the Mongolians' sight if Alexius can't evoke a stroke of God.
The Horde takes a practical approach in how it presents the uncompromising atmosphere of the Mongolian Empire without a grandiose introduction, though Proshkin does take opportunities to push the envelope with grueling displays; throats are slashed and necks rung, with gushes of CG blood to accentuate the brutality. Beginning with an opening scene fueled by power posturing and a portrait of the dynasty's ferocity, much of the film takes place within musty permanent huts or filthy, hot work areas, which are richly yet modestly detailed to evoke this time period. Rituals and performances involving the khan and his obstinate mother establish the era's grasp on the supernatural, from tribal dances to a graceful (and interrupted) magic show, embellishing what's otherwise a straightforward event in history with thematic intent. Proshkin smartly sets the stage for Alexius' arrival: it's a land of lawlessness and fickle superstition, where the priest must pass through fire and step over thresholds in order to do his work and, God willing, keep their volatile expansion at bay.
However, the ability (or inability) to channel divine power in dire situations becomes the focus in The Horde, where the harsh, unpredictable climate of the khan dynasty's power structure becomes the setting for Alexius' conflict of faith as a miracle rests in the balance. Proshkin emphasizes internal turmoil about the intervention of God in the affairs of men, laden with heavy-handed gloom that, while intriguing as a character study of an incapable priest at the mercy of a savage empire, offers little beyond a straightforward, deliberate glimpse at waning faith and the capriciousness of valuing a religious figure. Some might find the exploration of Alexius' belief an enriching experience, coupled with Maksim Sukhanov's haunting performance as Saint Alexius within this intense historical depiction of the khan dynasty's antiquated way of being. Alas, the hefty desperation emphasized in his struggle doesn't allow the film enough room to express a relevant modern message about the topic, which could be either a humanistic journey or a parable about strengthening one's weakened religious conviction.
Video and Audio:
The Horde arrives in a 2.35:1-framed anamorphic widescreen transfer that wavers between suitable and somewhat muddy, mostly to the former. Centered mostly on shades of sandy tans and rich brown, with splashes of blue in skies and water and bursts of red in blood, the photography showcases an impressive amount of depth and color gradation through the more robust successes of this transfer. The issues arrive in some heaviness and ghosting when the film is in motion, along with hazy, muddy sequences -- mostly outdoor shots -- that lack significantly in detail and sport some observable noise. Positives outweigh the negatives, though, as the contrast levels handle the musty indoor scenes in Mongolian hits without swallowing details, and some fine details in faces and garments in close-ups are well-handled.
When The Horde first loads up, you're given the choice between either the original Russian/Mongolian language option or a 2-channel English dub. Sticking with the intended language track, a 5-channel Dolby Digital treatment, this isn't a track with a wealth of sound elements to focus on: a cannon firing, the sounds of horses galloping, the rumble of fire and the cascade of rain offer a few semi-aggressive moments, but they're few and far between. Mostly, this is a front-heavy, dialogue-driven feature, to which Entertainment One handles the fidelity as well as one would expect. It's clear, the lower-frequency channel handles deeper elements well enough, and the ambience of exterior shots and subtle motion are suitably clear. Bright yellow English subtitles are available, which are translated well enough (though they overuse dashes quite a bit).
Nothing, outside of the Trailer (1:34, 16x9) that tends to misrepresent the content.
The Horde appears as if it's going to be a historical action docu-drama about the Mongolian Empire, driven by suspense, blood, and intriguing visuals during more ostentatious displays of their culture. Only bits and pieces of that end up being the case, though, as Andrei Proshkin's film instead centers on the conflict of faith and superstition as Saint Alexius works to cure a Tatar queen's eyesight, a means of preventing an onslaught on Moscow. The film's tone remains grim and ideologically conflicted as it chronicles the point in history, presenting it as a frustratingly futile viewing experience that's elevated by compelling performances that guide us through the tumultuous spiritual journey. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site