Shot between 1973 and 1975, and released in 1982, Elem Klimov’s film of the life of Grigori Rasputin, titled Agony, is one of the watershed films with regard to the decline of Soviet Censorship and Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power. Like the films of Sergei Paradjanov, Klimov intended his film to be an expressionistic recreation of a particular chapter in Russian history. However, Klimov’s film would differ considerably, utilizing filmic techniques derivative of documentary filmmaking and a contemporary approach to psychological profiling. It was Klimov’s interest in illusory realism that prevented Agony from being released in the seventies, contradicting the trend set by Sergei Paradjanov.
The principle reason why Agony was not allowed distribution in 1975 was because of Klimov’s portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II (Anatoli Romashin). Klimov does not depict Russia’s final Tsar as a tyrant not as a buffoon. Instead, Klimov favors a portrayal that is far more naturalistic. The problems facing the Imperial family are not solely the fault of Nicholas II in Klimov’s film. Klimov attributes the conflicts and difficulties facing the Imperial Cabinet to corruption throughout, and to the Tsar’s distracted behavior that is often the result of his son’s illness.
The distribution of guilt and its humanizing effect is reinforced by Klimov’s employment of title cards that bear the name of a character when said character first appears. This is an approach more closely associated with documentary filmmaking. But Klimov adopts the mechanism to give his film the illusion of being a legitimate account of history. The tactic is only an illusion in Agony designed to convince the audience to accept Klimov’s narrative as recreated fact, that on close inspection is undermined by the insignificant role of the Bolsheviks in the film’s narrative.
The naturalism of the actor’s performances in Agony and its fusion of narrative realism and documentary filmmaking is given a counter point in a number of more fantastic sequences that either occur within a character’s dream or in a location of surreal design. All of Agony’s more expressionist sequences coincide with the character of Rasputin (Aleksey Petrenko). Rasputin was a mystic and Holy healer, and these fantasy images work as illustrative interpretations of the popular Russian idea of Rasputin as well as psychological manifestations of Rasputin’s own madness. For instance, there is one horrific dream sequence in which Rasputin appears among pine trees, illuminated by flashing lights with small gold coins placed over his eyes. The soundtrack that accompanies this sequence is equally aggressive and coincides with the images to create a decontextualized sequence designed to emote the prophetic nature of Rasputin’s teachings.
Oddly enough, Rasputin is no more villainized in Agony than Nicholas II. Klimov’s depiction of Rasputin is almost objective, and never once plays into the clichés of the character that have been propagated in Western Cinema. If one compares the Rasputin of Agony to Lionel Barrymore’s Rasputin in Rasputin & The Empress (1932), one is inevitably struck by how sympathetic Klimov’s Rasputin is while at the same time the character is behaving so violently. That Aleksey Petrenko was able to negate the two dimensionality of Barrymore’s Rasputin is a blessing.
The sum of the parts of Agony is what makes the film the landmark in Soviet Cinema that it is. Unlike the works of Tarkovsky or Paradjanov, Klimov’s Agony is not entirely invested in fantasy or neo-expressionism as a means of filmic story telling. Nor is Agony exclusively tied to the quiet realism that marks the trend in the films of Larisa Shepitko. Klimov fuses both styles together, aligning every sequence to utilize the power of either style to its full potential without ever isolating the audience in the process.