Synopsis by Clarke Fountain
American audiences generally expect the films they see to be simply entertaining, whatever other good qualities they may have. Russian audiences and filmmakers are more diverse in their expectations, so that sometimes a film can be made (and seen) purely to advance the cause of art. Skorbnoye Beschuvstviye is such a film, made by Alexander Sokurov who routinely requires his viewers to appreciate his skillful use of imagery and symbolism, rather than his storytelling. He is considered to be one of the more significant young Russian directors, and his films frequently create quite a stir. The action in this lavishly produced film takes place at an oddly ark-shaped mansion during World War I, and in spirit (although not in story) it reflects the play which inspired it, the ferociously antiwar Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw. A large group of family and friends have gathered at this country house to dance, drink, and converse. Their conversation, in particular, is adorned with erudite literary references and quotations. Despite their apparent refinement, their preoccupations are simple: sex and violence. Disquieting images break the tranquility of the vacationers' inappropriate idyll: some of these include documentary footage of starving African children, images (both real and re-enacted) of George Bernard Shaw going about his daily life, and a corpse coming to life on an autopsy table, only to cheapen that miracle by scolding a group of women. The music used in the film ironically points to its disturbing message and is uniformly anachronistic.