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Before the release of his groundbreaking feature film Russkiy kovcheg a.k.a Russian Ark (the film boasts the longest continuous shot ever utilized in the history of cinema) Aleksandr Sokurov was mostly known to those who had a genuine interest in Soviet cinema. His works were especially hard to track down and the little available through smaller independent companies was of questionable quality. In fact, even in his native country Aleksandr Sokurov's early films were difficult to obtain particularly due to the new developments within the state-run MosFilm (to this day many Soviet films are still unaccounted for) and of course the fact that film preservation was not something Soviet officials were well-known for. Fortunately enough it seems like in recent years after the enormous success Aleksandr Sokurov gained at film festivals throughout the world and the financial revenues Russian Ark provided some of his early films are finally entering the restoration labs in St. Petersburg.
The Second Circle (1990), Aleksandr Sokurov's grim tale about a man who attempts to burry his deceased father in the frozen lands of Siberia, was produced at a time when the gusty winds of perestroika were blowing through the Soviet Empire. Filled with disturbing yet poetic images evoking comparisons with the work of Tarkovsky The Second Circle is also as much a story about human suffering as it is a veiled criticism of the Soviet state and its abstract ordinance. Revealing soul-shattering poverty and a maddening reality where one man must literally go through hell (hence the suggestive title) before he arranges the funeral of his father The Second Circle paints a picture too painful to watch. Yet, its message is uncharacteristically powerful!!
With the exception of a few scattered remarks The Second Circle offers no dialog whatsoever. The film feeds off the bleak reality surrounding the young Russian man and the almost idyllic vistas from the Siberian village where the action takes place. In fact, many will notice that the manner in which The Second Circle was shot is similar to what Aleksandr Sokurov did in his Father and Son (2003) – muted, yellow-sepia colors; grainy low-contrast lighting; hand-held camera work – all intended to exacerbate the sense of agony the film so successfully recreates. Obviously the Russian director is still very much fascinated by what he began experimenting with in the early 80s.
I can not recall another minimalist film from recent years that revealed so much by relying on so little. The composition of The Second Circle initially may seem a bit pretentious but as the story progresses it becomes more and more evident that Aleksandr Sokurov knew very well the reactions he wanted to instigate amongst his viewers. As I was watching The Second Circle I could not stop thinking about Vasili Pichul's Malenkaya Vera a.k.a The Little Vera (1988) about a girl on the slippery path of Soviet "morality". The sense of desperation these two films evoke is quite frankly unmatched by anything I have seen in recent Russian cinema.
Those unfamiliar with the work of Aleksandr Sokurov will probably want to approach a different film first (perhaps his commercial success Russian Arc is a good starting point) before they dive deep into the Russian director's early films. As noted above these are films that would often test the patience (and probably tolerance) of viewers accustomed to mainstream cinema where the "story" tends to follow a straightforward path at a manageable pace. If you however are willing to experiment with Soviet cinema and some of its greatest masters then Aleksandr Sokurov should definitely be on your list right next to Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Gerasimov, and Mikheil Kalatozishvili.
How Does the DVD Look?
There is much to talk about here particularly due to the fact that Kino have managed to license the newly restored director's cut of The Second Circle (Sokurov personally supervised the new cut and consequently made a few additional corrections). Furthermore, from all of the supplementary information provided in text format in the "extras" section it appears that the original negative for the film was in an extremely poor condition and even the Russian lab-technicians could not do much to clean it. The reason I mention all of this to you is so that you get idea how poorly Soviet archives were maintained (even newer films would suffer the kind of damage that one would likely see in 80-90 years old pictures).
The Second Circle is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and the print while restored offers a fair amount of dust and specs especially in the opening scenes. On a positive side there are no jitters and after the initial 5-10 min. the quality of the print becomes much better (and clearer). Colors and contrast are also extremely difficult to evaluate as much of what one is likely to criticize with "mainstream" releases appears to have been intentionally filmed: heavy grain during inside shots, low-light effects, dull colors, and the predominant heavy yellow-sepia color frame. With this said, I am most certain that the restored print/master which Kino were offered by the Russian studio-distributor was in a PAL-format and they did not bother to properly convert it for the R1 release. With a film like The Second Circle however the untrained eye will have a most difficult time separating the mild "ghosting" from the intentional effects described above. Therefore as far as I am concerned tube viewing should not be an issue!!
How Does the DVD Sound?
While officially the sound mix should be Dolby Stereo-Russian (at least that is what most Russian sources claim) as far as I am concerned the quality offered on this DVD is closer to mono. I mention this not because there is an issue with the presentation (after all it matters very little as nearly 95% of the film is without any dialog) but because some of you might incorrectly conclude that the audio might have been altered after Sokurov did his post-production cuts. It is not, and what you get on this R1 DVD is exactly what the lab-technicians had to work on as well! With optional English subtitles.
The only additional materials provided on this DVD release are a "Stills Gallery" (take a look at it to see how clear the stills look and how different the colors are before Sokurov did his sepia-filtering) and a plain text highlighting the restoration process the film underwent.
In any other case, considering that this is definitely a release which Kino PAL-sourced, I would have granted a "Rent it" mark but given how unlikely it is that anyone would be affected by the quality described above (indeed the filming technique used by Sokurov to a larger degree negates the PAL sourcing issue) and the fact that I do not predict another English-friendly release of this film in a foreseeable future I have decided to RECOMMENDED it.