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Kino on Video presents
Siberiade (1979)

"His dream was to build a wonderful city—a City of the Sun—with pictures and gardens all around. Silence. The streets will be laid with white stone; marble, it's called. It'll be clean everywhere. Incredibly clean."
- Rodion (Mikhail Kononov)

Review By: Ross Johnson  
Published: January 30, 2007

Stars: Natalya Andrejchenko, Sergei Shakurov, Vitali Solomin, Vladimir Samojlov, Ivan Dmitriyev
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, brief nudity)
Run Time: 04h:33m:12s
Release Date: January 09, 2007
UPC: 738329042622
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Oddly enough, director Andrei Konchalovsky is best known (if known) to American audiences as the credited director of the buddy-cop-action-comedy Tango and Cash. Apparently Konchalovsky quit that project midway through filming, but it's nonetheless an odd footnote to the resume of the popular Russian director, whose body of work stretches from the 1960s to the present, and includes a writing collaboration with Andrei Tarkovsky on Andrei Rublev.

Siberiade, considered by many to be Konchalovsky's masterpiece (and newly restored to its original length, over four hours), is an epic presentation following three generations of two rival families in the remote Siberian logging village of Elan. The Solomins are the wealthy masters (wealth being highly relative in a tiny, walled village), at least until the far-off Bolshevik revolution alters the power structure in ways they can react to, but not really understand. The Ustyuzhanins (a name I can't pronounce, despite having heard it repeated throughout the film) are poor, and while the elder father toils endlessly on a road through the forest—a road that appear to go nowhere—young Nikolai Ustyuzhanin dreams of the glorious revolution rumored to be underway. The families will struggle against one another for decades, even as romance between members ties them together. In the decades to come, they and their descendents discover that the seemingly pointless road was pointing the way to the future, for better or worse. Oil-rich Siberia will take on a new importance for the fledgling Soviet Union, and the Ustyuzhanins won't let the future pass them by, even if it means razing their village to the ground.

There are a lot of ideas at play in the four-hour running time, but the most important conflict is between unchecked progress and reactive conservatism—holding on to the past at any cost. The point of view of the Ustyuzhanins is given priority throughout, and they're the ones always looking to the future, to some brighter day ahead. Young Nikolai dreams that one day the village will rise up to become a metropolitan paradise; a"Sun City" where no one will have more than any other. It doesn't work out that way, though, and the failure of that dream suggests that perhaps the Solomins aren't entirely wrong to cling to home and family and the things that they have, realizing that the future is a scary place, full of peril. It's rather literally represented by a sulphur swamp at the far end of the father's road, a dangerous and almost supernatural spot (made genuinely creepy by Konchalovsky and his longtime cinematographer Levan Paattashvili), which none of the villagers dare enter. (There's a scene, better than any in recent horror movies I've seen, where war hero Alexei Ustyuzhanin discovers a small flooded cabin deep within the supposedly lifeless Devil's Mane. Of course, he has to go inside…) Upon his return as head of a Soviet oil-drilling team, Alexei literally bulldozes the ancient gateway to the village; he later discovers it's not nearly as easy to rebuild.

I have absolutely no way of knowing how authentic Konchalovsky's vision of Siberia is, but it certainly feels like a real place populated with real people. Turn-of-the-century Siberia might as well be Mars for all the familiarity that I or many other westerners would have with it. For that matter, I suspect that many Russians would feel the same. So as a portrait of a way of life that's gone and a place that most of us will never see, it's fascinating. The atmosphere is certainly epic, even if most of the action takes place in the same tiny village. World events are shown only occasionally in hyper-fast montages set to some appropriately jarring but otherwise failry awful late-'70s synth-punk. It is extremely rare that we see major characters living life outside of Siberia (one notable exception is a gruesome and darkly humorous war scene Alexei manages to somehow live through). It never feels claustrophobic, though, and the point is clear: while the denizens of Elan feel the ripples of events with earth-shattering import, it is only gradually that Elan is overtaken by them. The Ustyuzhanin family drag the village kicking and screaming into an uncertain future, mostly because those with nothing have little to lose; they work to become the masters they have so long struggled against, and their glorious dreams feel like opportunism before long.

It's impossible to watch this film without a sense of the Soviet-era politics that fostered it, but Konchalovsky miraculously rises above all that. It's as though he was as disillusioned as many of his countrymen must have been by 1979, but this is less a story about a system and more about how people respond to any imposed system. In the opening moments it feels as though dreams of a Communist paradise may rule the day; it soon becomes clear that while empires—and political systems—rise and fall, ordinary people continue to live their lives, seeking out opportunites wherever they present themselves.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's plenty to complain about in the presentation here. Unfortunately, I have no idea as to the provenance of this material, but there seems to have been some deterioration and possible transfer issues. Some digital artifacts show up now and again, and though the movie intentionally alters its color scheme throughout, colors aren't always consistent. Dust and grain are apparent thoughout, and the occasional scratch as well. Having said all that, in comparison to other Russian films from the era, Siberiade is not only watchable, but rather extraordinary in its visual quality. Some of the digital issues are unnecessary, but any other problems were likely unavoidable and aren't particularly distracting.

The film is broken up into four segments and split over two discs.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Russianno

Audio Transfer Review: The original Russian 2.0 presentation is clear and clean, with no fuzz or other problems.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: unknown double keepcase
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There is only a brief gallery of stills.

The subtitles are nicely done: clear, readable, and apparently well-translated.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Make no mistake—Andrei Konchalovsky's Siberiade is a four-hour subtitled Russian epic, and if that doesn't intimidate you (as it certainly did me), then this newly restored classic will be right up your alley. It's a smart and passionate drama about the ways in which people respond to change, and how world-rocking events hit home in unexpected ways, with characters that are believable and relatable in spite of their tremendous distance from modern American audiences in geography and time. Unlike so many "epic" movies, this one also manages to be wonderfully unstuffy by maintaining a dark sense of humor and hints of the mysterious. The picture quality is pretty good (though not perfect), and the audio is great. Well worth checking out for anyone willing to give it the time.


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