Defying Everybody

09/04/2011

Soviet Union / 1972 / Serbian, Russian & German

Directed by Yuri Ilyenko

With Vladimir Popovic, Larisa Kadochnikova, Ivan Mikolajchuk

Still from 'Defying Everybody'At the beginning of his film Defying Everybody Ukrainian filmmaker Yuri Ilyenko treats us to a sequence of slow-moving images that are startling for their elegiac ferocity. Faces of blank rock, chalky and Gothic protrusions that reach upwards like dull spires, surround the frame from seemingly all angles. A powerful feeling of inland seasickness pervades as the swollen stillness of the landscape is washed over by the wails and whispers of grieving women who pick stones from the mountainside. Are these for anonymous pile-graves for sons-brothers-husbands? One woman’s hand, reaching into a cubbyhole in the rock, inadvertently grasps a fern. They take the rocks and dump the silage. Starvation: a boy chews the fungus off of a branch. We come to understand that this is all seen through the eyes of Petr I. Petrovic, the local bishop who has just come back from Russia, returning to this place of lichen and stone.

There is a giant bell that, in this earthbound community in Montenegro with no large structure from which to hang it, sits silent and disused at the bottom of a hill. The only time it makes a sound is when a chorus of women pelt it angrily with stones, and it makes a rainbow sound like a whole cathedral full of ringing chimes. The women cry because their society is one perpetually at war, one chipped away gradually to a hollow and crater-pocked moonscape. The bishop dances with a young woman named Bojana on the graves of her three brothers. It is a desperate, masochist dance, either an obscure Orthodox rite or a melancholy act of self-flagellation, or both. But then a smile begins to eclipse her grieving and she gazes at the bishop, taken with his unkempt dignity. The young man who had loved Bojana brings back violent war trophies but doesn’t grasp that his people’s conflicts have a destined culmination, or even that conflict itself inherently has an endpoint.

Petrovic flings into the air a handful of soil brought back from Russia, showing the people that they are all of the same zemlya. It feels that he is a figurehead paving the way for yet another imperial thresher, positioned in the body of an emaciated martyr. His goal is to construct a temple of peace, which sounds suspiciously like a church. Savo, the bishop’s brother, urges him to use brutality to control the Montenegrins but he refuses – and continues to face the people’s hypocrisy, excess, waste, cynicism. The downtrodden among them are as guilty as the bloated aristocrats for accepting a feudal way of life. Fallow but sincere gestures that he puts out are basically ignored, and strange explosions of purifying behavior are equally perplexing. At one point he sets fire to a plague-ravaged village, incites people’s ire and starts a riot.

The bishop begins a lengthy campaign of repentance after years of accepting riches from the wealthy men of the town and influencing the masses at the same time. While he is not responsible for the current way of life of the people, he may feel partly to blame for keeping them that way. He gives away the riches acquired to stop war from overtaking, to promote a mentality of understanding. He returns the goldplated guns given to him by Joko the headman, thereby reducing the man to the ground and also diminishing his power, which was only gotten by proxy through his cynical friendliness with the clergy. Petrovic promotes connecting with the Russians (their saviors and social ascendents, it would seem) but has to tear the people away from fighting with the Turks, until his strength gives out. He relents because the Turks cannot be reasoned with, know only singleminded ploughing through the land. They do not calculate like the Russians, do not try to buy anyone like the Hapsburgs.

Still from 'Defying Everybody'He is two characters at least, each with several minds; an advocate of brotherhood and a warrior chief; a nutty town crier and a respected elder whose opinion is law. His status in the town vacillates to a nauseating pitch, until he becomes a blur, a puzzling superimposition of these things and more. He is not Bresson’s wasting-away, tearfully conflicted country priest, but rather, is painfully and totally committed to each problem as it faces the people with whom he is charged. He wants to guide the townsfolk but they refuse guidance. In response to his preaching they gather around and murder him in various metaphorical ways. So he controls them, which is what they seem to really want.

Defying Everybody treads loamy, darkened ground most of the time but is also regularly animated by drastic shifts in spatial scope, feral jump-cuts and disruptive compositional changes. Ilyenko’s imagery is wildly improvisatory and eccentric, yet painstakingly composed, steeped in religious art and iconography. Like Paradjanov, he applies obscurantist, sharply modernist methods to stubbornly folksy material, which itself doesn’t bear a breath of the modern besides the echoes of so much art history that preceded the work. Rejecting the faded translucency of Andrei Rublev (1966) in favor of raw and hallucinatory bravado, the film’s medieval imagery lurches and occasionally topples from charismatic, collision-fueled passages. Defying Everybody seeks to startle rather than seduce, to produce an angry ululation against wrongheaded hypocrisy, against church and state, not invoke a lost age or strike a chord with now. And, unlike in Tarkovsky’s comparatively graceful film, the wavering between ugliness and transcendence, harshness and reflection, is not a restrained push and pull, but constantly feels like grappling, abrupt and uneven. It is perhaps fitting that, in depicting a world that has been abandoned by reason, wherein authority is acute monstrosity and doom, that the filmmaker never really achieves an aesthetic balance on which to rest his hopeful message.

Ilyenko works best when treating the historical setting and folk traditions here as art objects in totality, while stepping through the absolute dramaturgy of the scenes with documentary moves. The ethnographic detail, the wrinkles of old women’s faces and the white pools of widow’s eyes, are always gnawing at the edges of the film’s essential artifice. Visually Ilyenko dwells in ghastly, fish-eye whirlpools – figures spewing forth from a single puncture in the screen, or pouring into a central convergence from opposite sides. The convexity of some of the shots serves an ecclesiastic, El Greco crowding of faces and figures – for instance, the terracing of figures skywards, arrayed in shallow scoops and lateral curves against the serrated mountaintops. Unreal, this is not a historical piece but one that recalls various moments in the depiction of history that have come throughout the ages. We see Goya’s charcoal noctures with shooting flames, Roerich’s soft-hued and spectral mountains, even Rublev’s aspirated compositional archwork.

Still from 'Defying Everybody'Throughout there is all the oppressive, inadequately-motivated automaticity and uncertainty of a dream – deep gestures, erotically-charged solemnity. The images remain light, hallucinatory in their speed, never descending to quite fit their stone-surfaced, icon-like arrangement. Times of clarity are times of anger and explosion. An antidote to the suddenness of Ilyeno’s temporal style, there are some seriously cared-for shots that often incorporate swarming tableau; nicely scabrous, distilled-smelling scenes; heaping tinctures of darkness. The bishop is splayed out in countless messianic poses, gets subjected to a protracted stoning or dispatching by a firing squad made up of his flock. Who is the enemy of whom? In spite of the bishop’s suffering he is just as complicit in evil and the degradation of society as its conscious annihilators.

The film is, in some ways, reflective of an overly-conscientious Soviet mindset. Unlike Sergei Paradjanov who, one could argue, will often leave fairy tales alone to their own primal devices, strongly resisting modern interpretation, Ilyenko wants to enact the emergence of a modern way of looking at the world, albeit partial, fragmented, and at the cost of all civilization. He is unable to resist a snifter of allegorical contrivance, and seems to want to exclude from it dilutants such as contemporary stylistic connections or narrative to identify with a known form. He portrays a precision analog to mankind’s downfall, neither fastening the film to a sinking parable nor letting it blow away on a series of ephemeral metaphors. Preachy, self-important, and inspirational, Defying Everybody portrays a struggle for survival as a spectacularly florid self-immolation, a notion that can be seen in each Chechen “black widow” suicide bomber or moss-colored, adolescent jungle rebel. Tending towards extremes in the sense of being more primitive and more exultant than Paradjanov’s work, the film leaves the Christ metaphor as a dead-end, parodies its novelistic procession simply by being so unremittingly chilly and cruel.

The notion of Ilyenko as a more spartan, chiseled-down Paradjanov is not too far afield. They worked together on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), and seem cut from the same crazy-patterned cloth, sharing not only a common aesthetic but also similar ideas for how an aesthetic idea should be conveyed. The difference is that ultimately, in the end product, Ilyenko does not convey any aesthetic idea, while Paradjanov’s films are studded with them. Rather, Ilyenko utilizes complex visual devices, and numerous religious-artistic-folk references that amount to a sublimated philosophical meditation. In other words, there is little ornamentation and visual gristle to populate the film’s various angles, nor is there much in the way of visible eclecticism to mystify. In a distinctive Paradjanov picture, there is always an abundance of arcana milling around the philosophical core that is impossible to know in its entirety without being the filmmaker or a scholar of his work, giving the spectator the sense that there is always something a little bit beyond their understanding, this sea of implications beyond the frame and beyond the scope of the film itself, expressed in a rudimentary symbol or coyly-placed nonsequitor.

It is beguilement in the best way, because it isn’t purely cinema, whose bounds are completely defined by that which is obvious, which essentially must be obvious. Ilyenko wants to cut straight through to the philosophizing, and arrives at it by way of the same sort of tone as his famous collaborator. He just takes out the elaborately-woven clutter and reduces, reduces, reduces. The powerful, full-of-presence editing is still there, a personality in itself, capable of passing judgment on and executing whole crowds in a breath, of laying ruin to a landscape or spinning it down into nonexistence. There is still the imprint of Paradjanov’s lyrical sensibility, the fragments of folksongs and delirious traditional rites, the love of palatial landscapes that blast upward or stretch absurdly outward, lacking horizon and shape.

Still from 'Defying Everybody'The young man is disillusioned by the bishop’s affair with Bojana, whom he was ready to marry. This apparently translates into a hatred for his own people and he goes to fight for the enemy Turks. The Turkish Pasha says he can’t join them until he brings the head of the bishop, which he is all too glad to do. The enemy leader sees the bishop as the lynchpin of the society that they want to overtake (possibly to pave the way for a mountain crossing – they never ethnically cleanse without a reason, right?), when in fact he is a drip-basin for their collective problems. The people’s fear and awe of him coalesce to form subservience, which is not the equivalent of respect.

The people are holding onto meager sovereignty, shrugging off, for better or worse, imperial benefactors and invasive hordes. They starve, clinging to the face of a rocky mountain that has widows’ cries forever hanging in the air. Joko, whose corruption has plagued and torn at the bishop, torches his own house in answer to the bishop’s prayers for it to catch fire. He thereby tries to prove the man a saint. Confusion, as in many instances throughout the film, ensues. And when he has gained the status of a prophet among this scrawny society, he finds the platform that he is on already fully corrupted, rotted away by the ambivalence of the wakeful illusion he helped to foster. By the time they make up their mind to defend themselves, they find that their scruples have atrophied. Defying for so long has left no room for philosophy. Uncharacteristically, beside the violence and cold bathwater of most of the scenes, there is a stately and elegant montage of the village men suiting up for battle, cleaning themselves, lying with their spouses one last time. Their long-delayed doom has arrived as warmly and gently as a welcomed friend.

Everyone is gathered in the bishop’s still-unfinished temple of peace. An edict comes through from the primate of the Serbian church denouncing Petrovic. This is read out by Joko, by now thoroughly demoralized (his own little son denies his existence while preparing to go off to fight). The bishop dutifully removes his cassock as if he were about to do that anyway, revealing a suit of armor beneath it. His transformation complete, he leads his people to the battleground. Rather than a glimmering star of peace he is a symbol of brute force, there being little difference therein for people who allow themselves to be led heedlessly around. No battle scene, only an elevated shot that is literally filled to the edges with dying people down on the earth. Bojana goes from one to the other, futily tearing off pieces of her gown to wrap their wounds. She becomes completely torn up, nearly naked, having given herself while not coming close to staunching the flow of collective blood.

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