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THE DEVIL’S VIOLINIST

Producer: Rosilyn Heller, Gabriela Bacher, Danny Krausz and Christian Angermayer
Director:  Bernard Rose
Writer: Bernard Rose 
Stars:  David Garrett, Jared Harris, Christian McKay, Joely Richardson, Andrea Deck, Veronica Ferres, Helmut Berger and Olivia d'Abo
Studio:  Freestyle Releasing

D+

Classical music lovers may be tempted to check out “The Devil’s Violinist,” Bernard Rose’s take on the old tale about Niccolo Paganini having sold his soul to Satan for his unmatched dexterity on his instrument. The advice from this quarter is: don’t give in—the florid, hysterical (and far from historical) pseudo-biographical movie about the famous violinist isn’t worth it.

Violinist David Garrett plays the tortured musician, and his performances—which include the final Caprice on which Rachmaninoff later based his famous Rhapsody and Paganini’s elaborate version of “God Save the King”—are the high points. Unfortunately, while Garrett is a virtuoso on the violin, as an actor he leaves much to be desired. Perhaps it was the realization that his lead actor’s line readings and reactions were so terribly amateurish that led Rose, who served as cinematographer as well as director, to adopt a frenetic hand-held visual style that requires as few long scenes of him as possible. Unfortunately, it also afflicts much of the picture with spastic, jerky visuals that are more irritating than impressive, despite the efforts of production designer Christoph Kanter, art director Christine Caspari, set decorator Johann Wagner and costume designer Birgit Hutter to fashion a convincing period look.

One shouldn’t be too hard on Garrett, however; Rose’s script does him no favors. As with his screenplay for “Immortal Beloved,” which portrayed Beethoven’s life through an inquiry into what woman might have been the object of his obsessive love, Rose goes the melodramatic route in dealing with Paganini, presenting the violinist initially as a tortured genius who yearns for recognition that eludes him. Enter the mysterious Count Urbani (Jared Harris), who offers the dissolute young man international celebrity at no cost but for the surrender of his soul in the next life. The musician, being no believer in anything but dissipation, readily accepts.

Soon thereafter Paganini has become the nineteenth-century equivalent of a long-haired, strangely dressed, utterly egotistical rock star, over whom all the ladies swoon. Urbani caters to his every whim, even as his propensity to gamble strains their financial circumstances. He’s instrumental not only in arranging a potentially lucrative engagement in England through comically rumpled promoter John Watson (Christian McKay) but seeing to it that Paganini gets to Britain and ensuring his success there—not only by cultivating the press, led by Ethel Langham (Joely Richardson) a red-haired spitfire, but by manipulating the efforts of morals protestor Primrose Blackstone (Olivia d’Abo) to their benefit. Urbani is far less positive a force when it comes to Paganini’s romance with Watson’s daughter Charlotte (Andrea Deck), which he tries to derail.

None of the actors acquit themselves well, all apparently encouraged by Rose top give over-the-top performances, perhaps to make sure that neophyte Garrett would be kept in their shade as much as possible. Of course with Harris, it’s difficult to imagine that he could ever manage anything other than a full-throated turn; subtlety seems not to be in his thespian vocabulary. But McKay’s befuddled Watson and Richardson’s frizzy-haired newswoman aren’t far behind.

It’s understandable that admirers of Paganini’s music would find the chance to see a film about the man who practically invented the modern idea of the travelling virtuoso (serving as a model for Liszt in the process) irresistible. But “The Devil’s Violinist” turns out to be a Faustian bargain in more ways than one—not just in terms of its frankly ridiculous plot, but in terms of the compromises of taste one has to make in order to swallow it at all. Of course, Paganini was a pretty flamboyant showman, and so perhaps Rose’s extravagantly lurid take on him is justifiable. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.

LEVIATHAN

Producer:  Alexander Rodnyansky
Director:  Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writer:  Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev
Stars:  Alexey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Alexey Rozin and Sergey Pokhodaev
Studio: Sony Classics Pictures

B+

The old adage that you can’t fight city hall has rarely been dramatized so pointedly as in “Leviathan,” a film that conjoins the two great literary references to that mythical beast, the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of political philosophy. Though it’s a satire, it certainly won’t generate many laughs: this is a dark, bitter commentary on how absolute power corrupts absolutely and smashes those who resist it.

There are many notable aspects to Andrej Zvyagintsev’s picture, but surely one of them is that though the manifestly corrupt municipal officials it portrays are Russian, and by implication they represent the entire regime ruling that country, it was nonetheless subsidized by the Kremlin’s Ministry of Culture. It would appear that under Vladimir Putin, the Russian Leviathan’s right hand doesn’t know what its left is doing, for in this tale of power and suffering the authorities (both secular and ecclesiastical) are depicted—in words that Hobbes used to different purpose—as nasty and brutish, though at 142 minutes Zvyagintsev’s film could hardly be called short. But that real-life act of governmental incompetence may just be the most hopeful point the film has to make, for otherwise its message is bleak indeed.

The plot involves a property dispute between the local government and an irascible landholder. In a remote area of northwestern Russia, hot-tempered mechanic Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) lives in the ramshackle lakeside house that’s long been his family’s property, along with his rebellious teen son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his much younger second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who travels daily to town by bus to work in the fish-canning factory. Mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) has decided to seize Kolya’s property for some sort of development, using the power of eminent domain—and his control of the tribunals that decide such matters—to achieve his aim. Kolya has called in an old army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in Moscow, to oppose the mayor’s action. Dmitri first tries to go through channels, but when legal means fail (in fact, the cops arrest Kolya when he protests their refusal to help), Dmitri will resort to simple blackmail, threatening to expose the mayor’s many misdeeds to higher-ups unless he relents. Of course, it proves unwise to try such tactics against a ruthless man.

Dmitri’s arrival, moreover, causes domestic difficulties when he and Lilya find themselves attracted to each other. They choose to tempt fate by slipping off together during a coastal shooting outing the family takes with their friends, traffic cop Pacha (Alexey Rozin) and his wife Angela (Anna Ukolova), who works at the factory with Lilya. It’s a trip where—as elsewhere throughout the picture—Kolya is driven by large amounts of vodka, which many of the characters regularly consume in simply enormous quantities. Ironically, it’s here, while joining with his pals in firing at special targets—presentation photos of former state leaders (when the man who brought them is asked why not the recent ones, the response is that they’re not important enough)—that Kolya discovers the truth about his friend and his wife. The aftermath will lead to Dmitri’s departure, though not until after he’s endured violence not once but twice, and to a family tragedy that will settle the dispute between Kolya and Vadim in a way that takes the perversion of justice to an even higher level.

There’s very little joy to be found in the society depicted by “Leviathan,” if you don’t count the sort of desperate energy that comes out of the bottle. The lives of the “ordinary” people—Kolya and his family, his friends—consist merely in tolerating miserable conditions and drowning their sorrows. Roma regularly goes off to drink with the other kids in the ruins of a church, and what we’re shown of the “thriving” Russian Orthodox establishment—in the person of the local priest living in luxury and assuring the mayor of the rectitude of what he’s doing—suggests that morally it’s in even greater disrepair. Even an impoverished priest, when challenged by Kolya, quotes a line from the Book of Job referring to the great fish called the Leviathan, which one cannot tame (an image recalled by a whale’s skeleton glimpsed on the seashore)—a recommendation of submission rather than resistance. Zvyagintsev’s film offers no hope of victory in the face of an all-powerful, all-corrupt regime guided by nothing but greed and self-interest.

And yet while “Leviathan” is hardly subtle in hammering home its themes (even the background music, drawn from Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” relates to an absolute kind of power), or in the style of acting (since the director encourages his cast, especially Serebryakov, to emote at the highest decibel level), it’s elusive in style, often keeping the most important actions off-screen, so that we’re compelled to imagine them rather than seeing them directly. It also uses the setting incisively, with Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography situating characters against the backdrop of an imposing—and unforgiving landscape.

So this is a modern-day Job story, but one in which the man doing the suffering is certainly no saint, and there’s no reversal of fortune at the end; the Leviathan steals what the man, who certainly doesn’t suffer in silence, possesses and, like the waves beating against the rocks in the closing shot, will continue to pound those who dare to oppose it mercilessly. It’s a dire point of view that the film definitely posits against Russia, but one that can also be taken in a more universal sense.