Russia has produced some extremely talented directors. From Sergei M. Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) to Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris) to the recent Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return), Russians have been behind the camera of some of the most memorable films ever created. Another name to add to that list is Elem Klimov. His 1975 film Agony: The Life and Death of Rasputin is a powerful film that looks at this enigmatic character through fresh eyes. This movie was banned in the Soviet Union for 10 years, and was only released theatrically during the era of Glasnost, but now it is avalible from Kino on DVD.
In 1916 things were going very poorly for the Russian Czar Emperor Nicholas II and his government. They were immersed in WWI, there were food shortages across the country, and illness plagued the population. Strikes were becoming commonplace, and many were openly talking about revolution.
The Czar's personal life was no easier. His only son and heir to the throne was a hemophiliac and was constantly in pain. The only person who could help the boy at all was a wandering mystic from Siberia, Rasputin. He was able to ease the boy's suffering where doctors couldn't. Because of this Empress Alexandra would give the imposing man anything he wanted, and soon Nicholas was doing the same.
With the country on the verge of collapse, many of the people resented this outsider gaining so much power so quickly. He was inserting himself into policy decisions, sometimes with horrible results. The fact that he was nearly mad didn't help either. Rasputin's mood swings and wild tears were the talk of Moscow, he drank freely and slept around even more than he drank. Finally a group of politicians decides that Rasputin must go for the good of the country. But killing him is far harder than it sounds.
This is an amazing and forceful film, that does a wonderful job of recreating
the Russia of the mid teens. Director Elem Klimov included vintage
newsreel footage (some authentic and some apparently recreated) of the
time to show and explain all of the problems Russia was having at the time.
The avarice of those in power was astounding, and this film clears illustrates
how hard it was to control. You can even begin to see how someone
like the Czar and Czarina could fall under the spell of an charismatic
On the down side, some of the intricate plot details can be a little tough to follow. It's hard keeping the many long Russian names straight, especially when the plot is coming together near the end. This is a minor problem though as the strong narrative manages to sweep the viewer along.
The stereo Russian soundtrack is about average. There isn't any hiss or background noise and the sound is clean but there isn't a lot of range either. About what you'd expect from a 30 year old movie.
While the image doesn't look too bad, I was hoping for a bit more. The 2.35:1 widescreen picture was not anamorphically enhanced, which is a shame. Also it appears that this DVD was created from a PAL master, as some quick movements are blurred. The image was also fairly soft, with fine details being a little blurry and lines not being as tight as they should be. Some details were lost in dark areas too. This makes the picture sound worse than it actually is. It is generally clear and the colors look fine. Not bad at all for a film that was banned in Russia for 10 years.
This disc has a great bonus item, a 50 minute biography of Agony's director: Klimov. This documentary covers Klimov's visit to the US in 1985 and includes several interviews with the director where he talks about his films and influences. A nice piece.
There is also a trailer for Klimov's film Come and See, as well as a filmography of the director.
This is an excellent film, with an outstanding portrayal of the mad
monk by Alexei Petrenko. Director Elem Klimov does a wonderful job
crafting the story and giving a succinct yet thorough explanation of the
problems facing Russia at the time. A truly great film that comes