Tsar (2009): Russian Pavel Lungin’s Second film, Tale of Ivan the Terrible

Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)–Pavel Lungin’s second film, Tsar, offers a look at Ivan the Terrible’s heart of darkness by focusing on the conflict between the corrupt monarch and his friend, the head of the church.
In this version, Ivan has replaced religious conviction with fanaticism and megalomania, abusing his power beyond any boundaries of reason and rationality.
Unfortunately for Lungin, inevitable comparisons will be made with the brilliant Soveit filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpieces, “Ivan the Terrible, Part I” (1945), “Ivan the Terrible, Part II” (aka “The Boyars’ Plot” (made 1946, but shown in 1958), and “Ivan the Terrible, Part III (aka “The Battles of Ivan”), which bceame his last, unfinished project; he died in 1948.
Indeed, excellent performances from the lead actors, good production values, and atmospheric images by Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood’s reliable lenser) can not compensate enough for the dramatic shortcomings.
The tale begins in 1560s, when Ivan IV (Mamonov) is already involved in religious mysticism, getting more and more paranoid about his enemies. Ivan has already committed to the cause of Christianity against Islam which threatens his borders.
When head of the Russian Church resigns in protest, Ivan calls on his childhood friend Filipp (Yankovsky) to take over the job, expecting total loyalty from him.
The film is divided into chapters, the first of which is “The Tsar’s Prayer,” which depicts the tsar and his secret police.
The second segment, “The Tsar’s War,” concerns the growing tensions between the two men. Inaugurating a church called “the New Jerusalem,” Ivan is informed that Polotsk has been lost to the advancing Polish army. After saving them, Filipp is forced to give them up to Ivan’s torturers, while he himself is spared. However, when he refuses to support their death sentence, Ivan has them killed in public by wild bears.
In the next segment, “The Tsar’s Sacrifice,” Filipp refuses to recognize Ivan’s authority and gets arrested for treachery. In the fourth, concluding chapter, “The Tsar’s Fairground,” Ivan experiences the final phase of his madness.
Unlike Eisenstein’s film, “Tsar” is more impressionistic than compelling, and some of the text is too verbose in exposing the intellectual debate between the two main characters.   The medieval flavor is viscerally captured by the movie’s look, design, and score by Yuri Krasavin.
In the press conference, asked about the message of his film, Lungin said that “Tsar” could be read as a parable of Stalinist Russia but not of the contemporary regime.
Nonrofit Cinema, SPL Film Production, in association with Bank of Moscow.
Produced by Pavel Lungin.
Executive producers, Vasili Bernhardt, Olga Vasilyeva.
Directed by Pavel Lungin.
Screenplay, Alexey Ivanov, Lungin.
Camera: Tom Stern.
Editor, Albina Antipenko; music, Yuri Krasavin; art director, Sergey Ivanov; costume designers, Natalia Dzubenko, Yekaterina Dyminskaya.
Sound, Stephane Albinet, Dmitri Nazarov.
Running time: 122 Minutes