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Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1972)

I came to this movie as a great admirer of the pathos of Tchaikovsky’s music and of his life story, both of which I relate deeply to. I hadn’t known about this film, though I had seen “The Music Lovers” and the 2007 BBC docudrama “Tchaikovsky”, both of which left me wanting. Nobody seems to get the Tchaikovsky life story quite right, though each has admirable elements. But “Amadeus” and “Immortal Beloved” are much more inspiring portrayals of Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, than this film is of Tchaikovsky. Had I not already been a great admirer of his, I don’t think this film would have made me one.

Overall, I liked the sullen mood of the film as it seemed to fit its subject, though at times he seems a bit too morose. This is made all the more annoying by the fact that the film doesn’t delve into the possible reasons for Tchaikovsky’s melancholy, and doesn’t seem to care to. Certainly his sexual orientation, in a society where being gay was considered shameful and worthy of banishment to Siberia, played a considerable role, but this was summarily ignored. And I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t some joy in Tchaikovsky’s life, especially when he was being lauded for his brilliant work. He was the most famous composer in Russia, if not the world, even in his lifetime. His letters indicate great pride and satisfaction at key moments in his life, but in the film he rarely cracks a smile. This gets tiresome. Nobody is morose all the time. His trip to America near the end of his life, which was highly successful, is ignored. The theme from the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, arguably the greatest musical expression of love in the world, is also ignored. The 1812 Overture is not mentioned. These are some of the composer’s best known works, though admittedly they may not have been while he was alive. Nevertheless, their absence is notable.

This film does a few things very well. The cinematography is appealing and painted on a large palette, with intriguing locations, grand scenes, and an authentic feel for Russia and Tchaikovsky’s world. But perhaps its most striking credential is the amazing physical resemblance of its star, acclaimed Russian actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky, to Tchaikovsky. It is haunting. I felt as though I were watching actual physical footage of the great composer (of which none exists, of course… he died in 1893), and found this mesmerizing. It lends the film an intimate feel, as though we are actually in Tchaikovsky’s world because it is so easy to believe that the man we see on the screen is indeed him.

Yet ultimately, what I find most annoying about the film is the cheap, tinny sound it gives to Tchaikovsky’s incredibly beautiful music. It is treated with all the dignity of a carnival merry-go-round, feeling rushed, comic and casual. What a great disservice this does, and this more than anything else hurts the film. Were the music handled with the glory and richness it deserves, the film would have much greater impact and feeling, and would easily win converts. If I were a Tchaikovsky neophyte, I would not rush out to buy a CD after seeing this film, and that is a great shame. A film about this man must, by definition, give one a passionate connection to his music, because it was such a huge part of how he expressed himself.

There is one poignant musical scene, however, the likes of which the movie could have used much more. Tchaikovsky borrowed many of his tunes from folk songs, mostly of Russia, but also from his travels abroad to Europe. In the scene in question, the composer is having lunch in Paris while we hear accordion music coming from the street below. Astute listeners will recognize it as the melancholy tune from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony. This subtle fact may be lost on the uninitiated, but I found it beautifully executed.

There is also a revealing and poignant (and imaginary) scene on a train between Tchaikovsky and his wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck. The two corresponded prolifically for over a decade, but never met (at her insistence), and were perfect soulmates for each other. Their exchanges were often quite frank. She wrote to him, “I am very unsympathetic in my personal relations because I do not possess any femininity whatever; second, I do not know how to be tender, and this characteristic has passed on to my entire family. All of us are afraid to be affected or sentimental…” No wonder she adored Tchaikovsky’s music: it exquisitely said what she could not. We feel for her, and instantly realize that Tchaikovsky suffers from the same affliction.

This film could have been so much better, but it contains enough worthy elements that I decided to purchase it. The striking physical resemblance of the actor to his character, the glimpses of Tchaikovsky’s genius, the Russian landscape, and the healthy dose of “Queen of Spades” (one of my favorite operas, and one of Tchaikovsky’s most successful) all bode well for future viewings. But when I want to enjoy the composer’s glorious music, I’ll pop in a CD instead.

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