Beginning of an Unknown Century is the fourth film in Kino Klassika’s “A World To Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen.” Inspired by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles’ famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the season aims to educate and inform the public on the wave of Soviet Film that had swept Russia for a hundred years. The season runs from 17th February to April 15th at the prestigious Regent Street Cinema.
Unknown Century was initially intended as a collection of four short films whose sole purpose was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolutions that toppled the Tsarist aristocracy and culminated in the ensuing Soviet Union regime governing Russia. However, the authorities during the Leonid Brezhnev era of the Soviet rule upon examining the first two parts decided to ban the film because of its bleakly provocative presentation of the revolutions.
It was not until 1987 when the film was shown for the first time in the country, a saddening fact that was made all the more tragic by the death of director Larisa Shepitko. (Shepitko directed the second part of the film) The film screened on International Women’s Day, resulting in a timely and sombre reflection on the young director. Francine Stock in her introduction of the film-maker stated that Shepitko’s other three films varied from a “Timeless and tender portrait of middle-aged women” (Wings) to The Ascent, which possesses an “immediacy [in its] modernity.”
The context of the film’s release history and its subsequent rediscovery feels like a small revolution in demonstrating the transcendent power of cinema and how it can overcome censorship and garner empathy from a contemporary audience.
Adapted from Andrei Smirnov’s novella, Angel depicts a disparate group of people and their tension-filled train ride through post-revolution Russia. The film’s opening in which the audience is shown an assortment of claustrophobic close-ups of improvised people on the slow moving locomotive encapsulate the film’s humanism. This central virtue admirably balances the horror of the situation and the seemingly jubilant moments of relief.
One scene has a buffoonish man revelling in the taste of milk as a lingering shot shows the man pouring the liquid all over himself in a state of pure ecstasy. Moments such as this are punctuated with the picture’s black and white photography. In particular, the white permeates the visual tone and makes one think they are watching the film through a perfectly preserved snow globe, which lends the picture with an innocent dreamlike atmosphere.
At the same time, the horror of the Revolution looms over the film like a haunting spectre. One subtlety harrowing scene has a little girl walking innocently through the woods with tense musical stings and confined close-ups accompanying her innocent steps. The moment suggests the inescapable nature of the Revolution and how it’s irrevocably tied to the youngest members of society. This inevitable quality also has a significant relation to the title character who is the presumably fabled Angel of Mercy, appearing in all white and having perpetual scowl of judgement.
In the end, he captures the large group of characters and violently punishes one of them for their past crimes while serving in the army. The dramatic scene illustrates the film’s conception of the Revolution as a character; it will cause even the most unassuming participant to be caught up in patriotic sentiment and punish those who abandon its painstakingly subscribed ideals.
Homeland of Electricity
Larisa Shepitko’s segment of Beginning of an Unknown Century is a haunting spiritual experience that combines the visual allure of a Western with the Theological import of an Ingmar Bergman film.
An especially striking sequence depicts a young man (The man in question is a technician who is tasked with providing electricity for a poor farming community) conversing with an ancient looking woman who expounds upon the nature of her faith. She expresses the futility of prayers in the face of her entire family passing away- concluding that it has become a meaningless habit. While the strikingly dramatic speech is being delivered, Shepitko’s employs a medium paced 360-degree panning shot of the environment.
The juxtaposition of nature and humanity is conveyed in a captivating manner as the old woman’s words feel like a flame in the wind, flickering into ceaseless obscurity much like her prayers to the Almighty. In cinematic terms, the Supreme Being seems like he has a substantial presence in the film.
One small moment in the tail end of the picture has a static wide-angle shot of many farmers working in the fields. The impressive shot is contrasted with many lingering moments of the sky. The small scene gives the audience a sense of God directly watching his creation in a manner akin to a human being gazing at an ant farm.
While the Revolution has cursory mentions in the dialogue, the film feels like it embodies the spirit of 1917. The picture presents a steadfast portrait of a community. In fact, the last moments of the film encapsulate this idea in a particularly poignant manner. In what seems like an act of divine intervention, rain pours over the villagers’ famine infested lands. They all stand in awestruck solidarity awaiting a promising future much like the people of Russia in the aftermath of the revolution.