Film Journal International Review: Chagall-Malevich

Aleksandr Mitta’s first release since 2002 demonstrates a playfully cinematic quality that is generally endearing. Even those unfamiliar with the Jewish, Russian-born painter Marc Chagall should appreciate the octogenarian filmmaker’s attempt to portray the life of an artist in a way different from mainstream convention. At the very least, Chagall-Malevich will attract dedicated art-house audiences.

Mitta breaks movie biography rules in a number of ways, starting with his screenplay (co-written with Kristina Schneidermann, who plays Chagall’s wife) and its focus on only one short part of Chagall’s life: the year towards the end of World War I when the young, naive painter (Leonid Bichevin) returns from Paris to his native land in order to establish an academy for other burgeoning modern artists. In his home village of Vitebsk, Chagall’s main professional rival during this period is the adjunct Polish-Russian professor Kazimir Malevich (Anatoliy Belyy), who rejects the whimsical, humanistic style of Chagall in favor of something harder-edged and more abstract (something the mercurial Malevich dubs Suprematism).

Chagall is also challenged in his personal life by poet-turned-soldier Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), who obsesses over Bella, Chagall’s devoted wife. In yet another storyline, the anti-Semitism of post-Tsarist Russia is illustrated by the harsh treatment of Chagall’s Hasidic protégé, Lyova (Yakov Levda), and her rabbi father (Dmitriy Astrakhan). Since the story stops at an early stage in Chagall’s life and career, we witness a highly fanciful conclusion—one that mimics the most famous of the artist’s paintings.

Thus, Mitta uses Chagall and Malevich’s work as the inspiration for many visual sequences. These fantastical and colorful episodes are lovingly photographed by Sergei Machilsky. Other parts of the film hew to a more neo-realistic look, and still others a Hollywood soundstage atmosphere (including what seems to be a homage to Fiddler on the Roof). The most daring parts, though, feature direct-address theorizing about art by one of the major characters. Whenever a moment seems anachronistic or inauthentic, or a performance becomes overbearing, Mitta covers himself by exerting his overall strategy of “mixing up” styles, genres and techniques.

Nevertheless, Chagall-Malevich falls short by not going far enough into untrammeled territory. Anyone who has experienced Ken Russell’s biopics of the 1960s and ’70s knows Russell reflected the iconoclasm of his subjects (Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Isadora Duncan) via an outrageous, over-the-top mise-en-scène. Likewise, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) introduced a less overt but equally striking form of genre autocritique. Mitta’s kinder, gentler take on all this mirrors his hero’s charmingly modernist, proto-Cubist designs, but Chagall is a comparatively dull figure, and what we see of Malevich’s efforts are also limited and repetitive. So, like its artists and its title, Chagall-Malevich stops short of the kind of inventiveness that would have made the film a true standout of its kind.

By Eric Monder, Film Journal International

Chagall-Malevich official page