Golden Lion for Faust, but will people see it?

Screenshot from "Faust". Source:

Screenshot from "Faust". Source:

The top prize at the Venice Film Festival, which ended on Saturday, has gone to Alexander Sokurov’s Faust – which on the one hand is a cause for celebration, but on the other hand reveals the gulf between the ordinary public and the festival experts.

It is understandable that Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust,” the last film in the director’s tetralogy about power and the nature of evil (the first three films were “Moloch,” “Taurus” and “The Sun”), has been found worthy of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Sokurov’s picture is complex, profound and alarming, with an almost magical effect on the viewer: It repels, unsettles and torments them, in order then to reward them.

“Faust,” which seems to be saying all the way through that there is no soul, ends up being irritating, upsets your spiritual equilibrium and fills you with a sense of disaster: Souls are now so cheap, and it’s not easy to find a buyer, and yet perhaps it was not the best decision to sell it? Before presenting Sokurov with the Golden Lion, Darren Aronofsky, chairman of the Venice jury, said that “Faust” is one of those pictures that change you forever. And that’s probably right. At least, the more time that passes after a showing of “Faust,” the more clearly its images are stamped on your memory: Margaret’s reflection in the smooth surface of the lake, the blood-stained suffocating homunculus, and the sinister nude form of Mephistopheles.

The fact that the jury’s decision to confer the award on “Faust” put many others into a stupid position is another matter. It revealed once again that the main weakness of the competition for festival awards is that they involve pictures that simply cannot be compared. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by the Swede Tomas Alfredson, which is worthy although not great, naturally won nothing, as did George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” and Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which had been leading in the press ratings. But Tomas Alfredson is no worse a master of the art of storytelling than Sokurov is of reflecting on the eternal. Steve McQueen’s “Shame” – which seemed to be the best film in the festival – won only the Coppa Volpi, for Michael Fassbender as Best Actor, and the FIPRESCI Prize. But “Shame,” for all its provocativeness, was shot by McQueen in a way that can appeal not only to specialists in the area of cinema language, but also to others (as long as they are prepared and at least minimally versed in cinema). With “Faust” it’s a radically different story. This is an uncompromising, difficult picture, which runs strongly for more than two hours and starts with the discovery scene. Almost all viewers not linked directly with cinematology had a hard time watching the film.

Obviously this does not mean that the jury should have pandered to the non-professionals, nor that the non-professionals should have forced themselves to passionately like Sokurov. The point is that the gulf between those who watch films and those who move cinema forward, is increasing. When someone asks, “What is ‘Faust’ like?” more often than not the answer is: “Great, but you probably don’t want to see it.” And there’s nothing you can do about the fact that cinema is being increasingly finely divided into films “for specialists” and films “for people.” At festival showings, the loudest applause will go to the dark humor of William Friedkin and Roman Polanski, but at the closing ceremony the awards go to those who film the subject of eternity. This is all hypocrisy, of course, but what can you do?

The author is editor-in-chief of the Russian version of Empire magazine. This opinion is abridged from the article “Incomparable,” originally published in “Vedomosti”.

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