More than two years, since it took the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust finally arrives in Miami theaters. The film lost steam soon after its somewhat controversial win, beating such hyped films that as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the George Clooney-directed The Ides of March and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Thankfully, the obscure film distributor Leisure Time Films has stepped in to present the film in U.S. art houses. As the years passed, while Faust remained in limbo, Sokurov’s film remains one of the most unusual cinematic experiences adventurous film lovers can expect from 2013’s crop of movies.
The latest and supposedly final film in his tetralogy exploring the corrupting effect of power, Sokurov’s take on Goethe’s classic version of the German legend is a visually stunning work. The story has never been depicted with as surreal a touch as this film, yet it never forsakes the morality of the classic tale, making the struggle between good and evil feel visceral and innate to a disturbing degree. Despite the dark theme, Sokurov, best known for his one-take epic at the Hermitage, Russian Ark, does not forget the beauty of life, for this film offers rich instances of beguiling imagery in juxtaposition to the horror Dr. Faust must face in his quest for evidence that the soul exists.
Despite its rapid-fire dialogue, Sokurov knows better than to use words as substitute for the literature. There is no rhyme scheme in the chatter as with Goethe’s source material. Though Sokurov still places the film in the time and place of Goethe (Early 19th Century Germany), there are dramatic compromises in the story that emphasize the director’s interest in looking at the duality of man. As with any film adaptation based on literature, changes are inevitable, but what matters is how true to the theme the director maintains his film version. In Sokurov’s Faust, evil does not come from the outside in the form of the devil but from within. In the place of Mephistopheles, Sokurov introduces a scraggly old man called Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) to seduce Faust in his quest for knowledge of the ultimate understanding.
Heinrich Faust is played with an edge-of-madness desperation by Johannes Zeiler, a man on a zealous quest for a sense of transcendence beyond the physical world. We meet him after a close up of a rotten penis, as he disassembles a corpse. He is not as interested in rotting guts as much as the place in the body that might harbor a man’s soul. He loses sleep over this obsession. His father, who is also a doctor and is treating a patient for back pain by strapping him to a rack, shrugs off his son’s concerns, saying, “It’s all matter.” Then the Moneylender wanders into his life, showing invincibility to hemlock. Intrigued, Faust tags along with him, and a great dialogue unfolds across bizarre adventure of murder, lust and greed.
Sokurov is interested in creating a cinematographic compliment to the literature of Goethe. The art of cinema meanwhile lies in the visuals, and what a lush, florid film Sokurov has created. The tight, 4:3 aspect ratio, with rounded corners enhance the film’s claustrophobic quality.
The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel proves essential to the film’s mesmerizing quality. This is a talent who brought a certain flavor to films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie and A Very Long Engagement) and Tim Burton (Dark Shadows). Most recently he worked with the Coen Brothers on what’s sure to be one of the great films of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis (my review is coming next week). The lighting is sometimes so expressive, some frames look like a Brueghel painting. Beautiful newcomer Isolda Dychauk plays Faust’s love interest Margarete. She is so ideally shot, she sometimes looks like a wax figure.
The camera work feels as important to the film as the dialogue. It enhances the film’s surreal atmosphere with a soft, shallow focus and a seemingly random use of shifting aspect ratios within scenes. There are moments when the characters are warped diagonally, pulled from one corner to another, as they are squeezed into the academy aspect ratio of the frame. It’s a hyper-realized version of the Dutch angle that not only shows something wicked may be afoot, but also spiritually wrong from within these people.
The film may challenge some. The subtitles slip by sometimes as fast as the banter. The stunning imagery, including costumes and set pieces, are so luscious they may pull your attention from the dialogue. In the end, as Faust travels down a spiral toward a discomforting realization of evil that may be in contrast to what you think you see on-screen, you may feel as if you stepped out of a two-hour version of Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup ride at Disney World. But it’s so worth it.
Faust runs 134 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (note: it’s gory, sensual and dark). It opens in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale this Friday, Dec. 13. The following Friday, Dec. 17, it opens at the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater in Miami. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Faust only recently began its U.S. run and will continue to open in other theaters into 2014, for screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.