Monday, January 28, 2008

American Premiere: Elegy for Life

The sight of Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich performing an impromptu cello concert as the Berlin Wall came crumbling down is one of the great images of recent history. Oddly, such a cinematic episode was not included in Alexander Sokurov’s new documentary Elegy Of Life: Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya. Chronicling the lives of both Rostropovich (who sadly passed away in April 2007) and his wife, the great opera singer and vocal teacher Galina Pavlovana Vishnevskaya, Elegy made its American debut at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Envisioning Russia film series Sunday. Even without the famous footage from the Wall, Sokurov directed a film with some very revealing scenes of the two giants of Twentieth Century music.

Between Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya (who kept her own name for reasons not addressed), the couple won just about every Soviet award for music and culture the ministries could bestow. Sokurov explicitly makes the point that they literally had everything to lose when they decided to shelter Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in their summer home when the Communist Party declared the dissident writer a “non-person.” It would be fair to say the Party was not amused with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, who would quickly be forced into exile themselves.

Eventually, their Russian citizenship would be restored in the 1990’s. However, the West has been the beneficiary of the Soviet banishment. Rostropovich recorded extensively and led the U.S. National Synphony Orchestra for many years. In effect, they became world citizens (but hold passports issued by Monaco). In a fascinating interview with Vishnevskaya, Sokurov asks the former diva if she worries about losing their beautiful Russian home they re-acquired after the fall of Communism. She answers to the effect of: yes, people have short memories and they may forget the how bad life was under Communism.

There are definitely some lessons to be taken from Elegy. At one point Rostropovich shows Sokurov a section of their home devoted to framed pictures of departed friends of honor, including a smiling President Reagan, who had awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1987. (Strangely, we never see a photo of Charlie Wilson, but it was a big house—maybe in the bathroom.)

Sokurov plays an interesting trick on viewers as he opens the film. We see Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya quietly eating desert at their golden anniversary party, looking like a tired elderly couple. However, as he revisits scenes from that party throughout the film, we see them laugh, dance, and revel like a couple a fraction of their age. At their table is Boris Yeltsin and just about every crowned head of Europe, each one a personal friend. Finally we see a loving moment shared by them immediately after that deceptively mundane opening footage.

Sokurov brings a certain idiosyncratic visual style to Elegy, but he recorded some telling moments. Most importantly, he captures the joy for living—through music—shared by his subjects. It deserves significant American distribution. Rostropovich will be missed, but fortunately his life and music were well documented. Elegy plays again at the Walter Reade tomorrow afternoon at four.