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EARTH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Semyon Svashenko, Stepan Shkurat, Yelena Maksimova
Director:  Alexander Dovzhenko
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Reconstruction of Sergei Eisenstein’s Bazhin Meadow
Length:  70 Minutes
Release Date:  January 22, 2002

“Hey, you guys named John…you guys named Stephen…you named Greg…

DID…YOU…KILL…MY BASIL?”

Film ****

Earth is one of the most visually hypnotic pictures I’ve ever seen…it’s 70 minutes of beautiful photography, loving pacing, and imagery that will linger in your mind long after the pictures have stopped flickering on the screen.  Though not always mentioned in the same breath as The Battleship Potemkin or Andrei Rublev, I’ve personally never found it hard to call Earth one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet cinema.

In terms of its pacing, it’s almost the antithesis of an Eisenstein film.  Director Alexander Dovzhenko takes great care with his visuals.  His camera lingers on them long and dutifully, giving each shot a philosophical contemplation, both inside and outside the greater political context of the work.

True, like most Soviet films of the period, there is an underlying Communist message…after all, these films were funded by the new government, which was less interested in art than it was in successful promotion of the Leninist revolution.  The fact that directors like Dovzhenko still managed to create relevant and time-tested works of art was a tribute to individual imagination and talent against a backdrop of Socialistic ideals.

The film opens with shots of nature…wheat fields waving in the wind, ripening fruit on trees and vines…it’s clear we’re looking at the world from a farmers point of view.  And speaking of which, our first farmer is an old man lying peaceably in the field.  He is calmly dying.  His friend, seemingly unsure how to react, merely asks of his comrade to try and let him know where he goes after he passes…heaven or hell…and what it’s like on the other side.

These are the poor farmers.  There are rich farmers in the story, too, and of course, they care very little about their poverty stricken compatriots.  Animals equal wealth in the farming community…the rich have them, the poor don’t.

A young farmer and revolutionary named Basil (Shkurat) and his friends dream of collective farming…where everyone works toward the same goal, and no man or family is left behind.  His idea:  form a partnership with all the other poor farmers in order to acquire a tractor for sharing.  A tractor will take the place of many oxen…it will be a significant step in economic equality.

His father (Svashenko), an older man who has worked in the current system all of his life, doesn’t fully understand nor appreciate what his son is trying to do.  But when Basil arrives with the tractor, he is proclaimed a hero.  His plowing down of the rich farmers’ fencing is symbolic in more ways than one…not only does it proclaim their new prominence in the system, but it begins to remove the idea of the earth or the land belonging to any certain individual or group.

But revolution is never without its martyrs.  After returning home from a romantic night with his fiancée (Maksimova), singing and kicking up the dust on the moonlit road home, he is shot and killed.

The news is devastating in the community.  His father’s grief burns like fire in his eyes as he stares at us through the screen and demands to know who did it.  We know who was responsible.  But Basil’s funeral will not be an occasion of defeat…what he started will roll on, much like the soothing rains that fall at the end of the picture.  When the crazed and embittered murderer screams his confession at the crowd gathered to bury Basil, their offer back the strongest response possible.  They simply ignore him.

This film wasn’t as well received in the Soviet Union as some…many in the new Communist government balked at the tragic aspect of Basil’s death, even if it was a death for the ideal of a collective.  Some modern critics don’t honor it with the prestige it deserves…it’s a film modest in construction, but rich in powerful imagery and singular in tone and message.

In my opinion, it deserves consideration as one of the best Russian movies ever.

Video **

Being a silent film buff, this category always pains me.  No, Earth isn’t going to be one of the best looking discs you own, but given the age of the film, the history of preservation in the Soviet Union (which didn’t even exist until the mid to late 70s), and the huge number of silent films that DIDN’T survive at all, there’s no chance it would be.  The image has more than it’s share of spots, scratches and debris, but I don’t fault it for them, nor do I consider them a distraction.  The black and white photography is still well presented, and Dovzhenko’s images are all intact.  We’ll probably never get a version looking much better than this, so I think most classic movie fans will be more than placated with what’s offered here.

Audio **

Likewise, the original score is old, but intact…it’s not without some noise here and there, and it doesn’t boast a lot of dynamic range, but the music still serves the story well.  It’s a terrific piece of film music, too, ranging from still, stirring strings to wild, jagged, percussionistic orchestral throes…no real complaints here, either.

Features **

I’m going to consider the inclusion of Bezhin Meadow as a feature…it’s a legendary lost film by Soviet master filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, originally banned by the government in 1937 and subsequently destroyed during World War II.  It has been reconstructed as much as possible, with extra title cards and stills from Eisenstein’s negatives, giving an impression of what the film might have looked like.  It’s a sad loss…image-wise, this might have easily ranked with Eisenstein’s best and most noted works.  It tells the tale of an innocent boy and an abusive father, and the tragedy that comes with political rifts…it’s worth a look.

Summary:

Earth is a masterpiece, not only of Russian filmmaking, but international cinema as well.  It deserves to be thought of as one of the best offerings to come out of the art form.  Beautifully crafted with superb photography and indelible imagery, no student of cinema should pass up a chance to view this film.