I guess I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting going into a film like this one. I knew very little about it other than the fact that it had won the Golden Lion prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. A very prestigious award that’s not quite on par with the Best Picture of the festival, but one that is usually reserved more for films that won over the majority of audience crowd members. Films presented with this award are films that the festival hopes will gain exposure by it just merely having been given it. Why it wasn’t released in the US until 3 years after its initial release date internationally is something I don’t have an answer to. Other than that with most foreign films it’s difficult for them to find a US distributor, so some movies take upwards to 2-3 years after their domestic release date to hit international markets. So with all of that in mind I figured it was at least something worth looking into. I also knew little to next to nothing about Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov other than he has had quite a long career having released almost a film a year since the mid 1970’s. Admittedly having never seen any of his prior work I went into this one with almost a blank slate.
The story focuses on Faust, a German doctor, who at the very beginning of the film we see conducting some kind of experimental surgical procedure on a cadaver. We then get a glimpse into his turmultous relationship with his father, also a doctor, but who has more or less given up on his son because of his disobedience and determination to do things his own way. Faust is a nobleman but lives the life of a street person – malnourished, no money for ink to write, sleep deprived, and beaten down. He is a man who as quoted in the film – “has lost the meaning of life”. Then one day, he meets an unsuspecting guest who’s traveling through, and the two of them come across some sort of “slave market”, where said traveler dons his clothes and we see that he is anatomically unlike anyone else (a strange, bizarre scene indeed). Faust seems to be unphased by this while others uunderstandably seem petrified. Fausts’ suspicions that this man is some sort of an otherworldy figure becomes true when through as if with a stroke of magic, he makes wine pour freely out of the walls of caves. This new supreme being gives Faust a sense of newfound hope, and the two of them begin to focus on what Faust has always wanted to attain but has been too unconfident and down on his luck to do so, which is to find the love of a woman. Faust does find a young girl that puts the twinkle in his eye, and both he and said unsuspecting traveler make it a mission to get her to fall in love with him.
“Faust” has some very interesting things going for it. As with many period pieces (it takes place during the early to mid 19th century) it has some beautiful costume design, art direction, and set pieces. From a film making stand point it shot in a unique kind of camera filter, with oversaturated lighting, which distorts the image and makes things almost look dream-like. Which, as it comes to a close, you will understand why the decision was made to film it like such. Some of the scenes, especially towards the film’s end are exquisitely and elegantly shot. Yet all of that aside, the story is meandering, and at a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes, it almost becomes a tedious effort for that on behalf of the viewer. It’s also disjointed, muddled, and utterly confusing throughout much of the film. Trying to explore existensial themes like God vs. the Devil and the meaning of life and death, with an underlying metaphor about Adam and Eve but with a twisted spin on it. None of which I found to be effective in the slightest. To top things off, when we do get to the climax, after a laborious 140 minutes, it feels like just another knock off of Ingmar Bergman’s masterful 1957 film – “The Seventh Seal”. So much so that I found myself rolling my eyes at it because it clearly wore its influences on its sleeve. Despite some interesting ideas from a cinematic stand point, this wound up being a rather shallow affair with too few redeeming qualities.