Set primarily in revolutionary-era Russia, Alexander Mitta’s “Chagall-Malevich” centers on the painter Marc Chagall and fictionalizes his real-life efforts to establish an artistic bulwark amid war and ideological ferment. It’s a literally colorful and playful attempt to portray battlefields of artistic ambition and political struggle. But its dialogue and characters are also written as subtly as a radical manifesto.
Wartime upheaval leads Chagall (Leonid Bichevin) to return to his hometown, Vitebsk, with his sweetheart, Bella (Kristii Schneider). There he starts a government-sanctioned art school under the watch of a military commissar, Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), an old friend who pines for Bella.
Instead of the international ambassador that Chagall would become in later years, Mr. Mitta gives us something like a Jewish folk hero who takes the risk of forging a distinct artistic and personal identity during the throes of the Bolshevik Revolution. Among the to-and-fro of school and town intrigue, the film’s color filters and canted camera angles create shallow, crowded spaces that echo Chagall’s roiling canvases.
When the Suprematism pioneer Kazimir Malevich (Anatoly Beliy) arrives to teach at Chagall’s school, Mr. Mitta even sends animated bars of color streaming through shots. But Malevich’s dogmatism about abstract art also confirms that Mr. Mitta’s actors will primarily function as didactic representatives of certain viewpoints.
That’s a shame because Mr. Mitta stages some nifty fantasias, like a shadowy bathhouse brawl that amusingly doubles as a physical debate over Western portrayals of the human body. And Mr. Mitta’s scenes of Chagall fancifully in flight (in imitation of the artist’s paintings) above the earth make for a summer-appropriate portrayal: the artist as superhero.
By NICOLAS RAPOLD, JUNE 11, 2015, The New York Times
Chagall-Malevich official page
A version of this review appears in print on June 12, 2015, on page C8 of the New York edition with the headline: Review: In ‘Chagall-Malevich,’ Two Painters Clash in Revolutionary Russia.