Genre: Biographical drama; music
Running time: 151 minutes
Producer-director: Tony Palmer
Writers: Tony Palmer, David Rudkin
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Terence Rigby, Ronald Pickup, John Shrapnel, Sherry Baines, Magdalen Asquith, Mark Asquith, Peter Woodthorpe, Robert Stephens, William Squire.
In the Brat Pack classic "About Last Night ...," good-looking but unrefined Rob Lowe, flipping through some LPs, asks, "Is this your Shass-TACK-avich?" Tony Palmer's "Shostakovich" is, to put it simply, not for the likes of such a philistine. Palmer's barely released 1988 British film demands from viewers not only a solid grounding in the life and music of 20th century giant Dimitri Shostakovich, but also a pretty strong experience with nonlinear film. Less a biopic of the composer than a symphony in its own right, the film is a testimony not just to its subject but to the power and possibilities of cinema.
Ben Kingsley, sporting a thick, dark wig, plays the Russian composer, and, like William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard," narrates his story from beyond the grave. "Narrates," however, isn't quite right. Kingsley's voiceover is sing-songy sarcasm tinged with outrage, a Dr. Seussian delivery that ranges back and forth across the middle decades of the 20th century.
Background? Explanation? Exposition? Forget about it. Palmer boldly presents a series of tableaux -- here's Shostakovich teaching his little daughter some piano basics, here he is trembling before the great tyrant Stalin, here he is standing in a frosty bog, staring out at Finland and wishing he were there. In this mostly black-and-white movie, Palmer samples German Expression, film noir, Bergmanesque ruminations and pre-"Schindler's List" splashes of color (mostly bright reds). He also inserts bits of modern-day musicians and singers performing the music. It all has the effect of depicting the turmoil of an artistic genius living in abject fear of displeasing the wrong people. Kingsley, who convincingly moves from young and spry to old, wheezy and doughy (without prosthetic assistance), gives one of the greatest screen performances that almost no one has seen.
Despite its brilliance, though, the two-and-a-half-hour "Testimony" is a tough sit. A lot of information is thrown at you and it's up to you to catch it. But hard work pays off: a central scene in which a lonely Shostakovich must face the music, so to speak, before a Communist Party convention, in which his very art is condemned as "not joyous" and therefore dangerous and perhaps illegal, will wake any nodding-off viewers; it's riveting beyond description.
"Testimony" (the "Tony Palmer's Film About Shostakovich" subtitle does not appear on screen) is from Kultur and Digital Classics DVD, the latter a new label specializing in music, the arts and documentaries. Most of the effort here has gone into the picture and sound. The rich black-and-white imagery is well-captured in this anamorphic 16:9 transfer. A wide range of Shostakovich's music and that of others is presented in rich stereo.
Unfortunately, there are no disc extras. A "straight" featurette covering the composer's life and work would have been helpful; we must make do with the dry little career summation included in the four-page insert.
A giant of 20th century music, Shostakovich is moreover presented here as nothing less than a hero for merely staying alive and continuing to work during Stalin's reign of terror. Ben Kingsley, while not resembling the artist, commands attention as few can. "Testimony" is a deeply difficult piece of cinema, but also a profoundly effective and impressive one. It's totally unique and totally in tune with its powerful subject matter.