Marc (Leonid Bichevin) and Bella (Kristii Schneider), flying happily in “Chagall-Malevich”
We western freethinkers and creative types are lucky to live in safe and uncensored times (makers of Islam-themed art excepted). Bold new styles and daring themes can earn an artist a following, not a trip to prison and the firing squad. Chagall-Malevich, a new film from Russian director Aleksandr Mitta, reminds us of a recent time and place where visionaries expressed themselves at their peril.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the October 1917 revolution, Mitta’s semi-historical fable tells of the rivalry and camaraderie between two trailblazing Russian artists, Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall is now by far the best known of the two. His paintings and stained glass windows are almost immediately recognizable for their lush colors, flying figures, and gentle-eyed animals.
Detail from Marc Chagall’s “The Birthday”
On the other hand, Kazimir Malevich’s star faded as Josef Stalin’s sun rose. Malevich was the founder of the Suprematist movement, an artistic philosophy that despised realism and sought enlightenment through geometric shapes and simple colors. For a time, Suprematist style was deemed a bold reflection of the new Soviet collective.
Detail from Kazimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square)”
Thus endeth the art history lesson. In Mitta’s film, the paths of this pair conjoin when Malevich arrives to teach at the proletariat art school founded by Chagall in the heady aftermath of Red October.
Besides these two title characters, Chagall-Malevich focuses upon two other lives. Bella is Chagall’s contented wife, managing the household for her impractical, dreaming Chagall and their growing family. Naum is Bella’s former suitor, who has jettisoned poetry and romance for single-minded, militaristic dedication to the revolution.
Naum (Semyon Shkalikov) and Chagall, together in “Chagall-Malevich”
This quartet of characters brims with potential for the contemplation of interesting ideas. Does lasting social change occur only down the barrel of a gun (Naum’s way), or can art transform the world (the Chagall-Malevich way)?
In addition, Chagall’s individualism sets him against multiple identity-effacing ideologies that surround him. Besides possessing his own highly distinctive style, Chagall affectionately encourages his students to paint what they uniquely see and feel.
This contrasts with Malevich, who sets up a messianic personality cult at Chagall’s art school. Malevich’s students become extensions of their teacher, their work mirroring the jutting yellow rectangles and aggressive red trapezoids of his own work.
Malevich (Anatoliy Belyy), serious as always, in “Chagall-Malevich”
Of course, Chagall’s individualism clashes with the spirit of the age, in which the imperatives of the collective smother the vision of the one. In a less drastic and dangerous fashion, Chagall is also at odds with his Jewish community, where one vocal rabbi sees artistic reproduction as idolatry.
Unfortunately, in Mitta’s film, this idea-mining potential is largely unfulfilled. Characters are imprisoned by clichéd dialogue, as when Chagall tells his students to “see with your heart.” Bella mouths many of the worst lines. When commended for her patience with her unworldly husband, she stoically utters, “For one to fly, another must be firmly on the ground.”
Another major shortcoming of Chagall-Malevich is that three of the four lead protagonists never develop beyond a narrow defining character trait. Chagall is predictably cheery, Malevich is zealously uncompromising, and Bella is unfailingly devoted. Only Naum seems to possess much depth, wavering between unquestioning obedience to the cause and compassion for individuals, though even this is conveyed in a ham-fisted manner.
What redeems this moviefrom complete mediocrity are the flashes of visual brilliance. Mitta and his cinematographers obviously drew much inspiration from the color palette of Chagall’s paintings. Cheery yellows, blues, and reds illumine the happier moments in Marc and Bella’s life together. Over the course of more somber scenes, these colors transition to darker hues. For the grimmest scenes of all, Mitta chooses sepia tones and chiaroscuro borrowed from the masters of the Dutch Golden Age.
Beautiful light and shadow, contrasting with the threat of violence, in “Chagall-Malevich”
Mitta throws in some surreal flourishes, too, which mesh nicely with his semi-fictional fable. Considering his source material, this had to include characters who fly when they’re happy. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing the other whimsical touches; I only wish there had been more of them.
The musical score by prolific Russian composer Aleksey Aygi is also a treat. So much film music today falls into one of two camps, either blandly forgettable (just about every crime drama) or bombastically manipulative (the worst of John Williams and his imitators). Aygi’s melodies are lovingly inspired by 19th Century Romantic composers like Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakov, with some Klezmer and more dissonant soundings inserted appropriately at other times.
These strong points unfortunately won’t be enough to grip the affection of most viewers. Probably only devotees of Russian history and the artistry of Chagall will want to track down Mitta’s film.
And that’s too bad, because a showdown between individual artistic integrity and massive social forces contains so much dramatic potential. Perhaps next time, Mitta could look forward a couple of decades to the subtle yet courageous battle fought by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich against the stupidity, anti-semitism, and terror unleashed by Stalin and his lackeys. To the best of my knowledge, this story has never been told on the big screen, and the propulsive, emotional jags of Shostakovich’s compositions are ready-made for grand drama.
2.5 out of 5 stars
(Chagall-Malevich is unrated, but is probably best suited for adults and mid-range teens, considering its occasional nudity, violence, and intense subject matter.)