The Brad and Angelina of post-Kruschev-thaw Soviet moviemaking, Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko were a gorgeous married couple of uncompromising artists made even more glam by their thorny run-ins with the censorship bureau and, most of all, by Shepitko’s tragic 1979 death in a car wreck. Klimov’s terminal film, Come and See, will never go out of print, and remains a standing affront to all American depictions of war, while Shepitko’s best features have been beautifully Criterionized. But Klimov’s Agony, made in 1975 but closeted by the Soviets until 1981, is less known and rarely seen, a seething, hair-pulling account of the last year or so in the life of Rasputin, as revolution brews across Russia and the Romanovs melt down. Orchestrated, acted and post-dubbed with the frantic brio of a 1960s Italian horror movie, the film dared to sympathize with the ineffectual Czar (hence the censorship) as well as with Rasputin himself, who’s an unpredictable admixture of savvy politico and delusionary extrovert, but is the story’s hapless victim. Still, the movie’s canvas is vast, its attention to history fanatical (everyone’s name and position gets a subtitle, even the 400+ bureaucrats of the Duma), its survey of the madness of power unflinching, if sometimes inscrutable and so close to Zulawski-style screaming mimis that you expect the actors’ heads to explode. Alexei Petrenko (last seen here in Mikhailkov’s 12) plays Rasputin as a unblinking, looming whirlwind, and he’s rather unforgettable.
Agony: The Life and Death of Rasputin plays Saturday and Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, as part of a Russian film series beginning this evening with Come and See.