Hard to Be a God (2013)

There is probably no other purgatorial cinematic experience like this—a Pasolini-meets-Tarkovsky medieval sci-fi epic that finds stark beauty in all of its carnivalesque filth and revolting excess.    

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,183

Dir. Aleksei German
2013 | Russia | Drama/Sci-Fi | 178 mins | 1.66:1 | Russian
Not rated – likely to be R21 for disturbing images, violence, gore and nudity

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Yuriy Tsurilo
Plot: An Earth scientist is sent to a planet that resembles our own during the Middle Ages—and he must not interfere in the planet’s political or historical development. Treated by the planet’s natives as a kind of divinity, he is both godlike and impotent in the face of chaos and brutality.
Awards: Official Selection (Rotterdam)
International Sales: Capricci Intl

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Disturbing – Civilisation, Dehumanisation, Violence
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Wow, I can’t believe I watched all three hours of this.  There is nothing like it in the history of cinema and certainly no other cinematic experience like this. 

I would describe it as Pasolini-meets-Tarkovsky, something like Andrei Rublev (1966) in its stark if poetic black-and-white beauty, combined with the carnivalesque silliness of the ‘Trilogy of Life’ (1971-1974), and maybe add in a generous scoop of the revolting excess of Fellini’s Satyricon (1969). 

It’s hell on another Earth.  And in fact, Hard to Be a God is set on another planet that looks like ours in the Middle Ages, where a few Earth scientists reside amongst mostly filthy, at times, barbaric, folks. 

About a society that has not reached the Renaissance (the scientists can’t interfere even with their advanced knowledge), and hence its people are oblivious to the transformative powers of art and science, Hard to Be a God is adapted from the Strugatskys’ novel (their ‘Roadside Picnic’ was adapted by Tarkovsky into 1979’s Stalker), a work that challenges how we view experimental history as much as it says about human beings at their vilest.

“Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

For its entire duration, we follow Don Rumata, who’s the ‘God’ in the title, as he finds himself incapable of helping anyone around him. 

The camera follows him as if like a documentary crew (and in fact, there are many shots of stumbling, bemused extras looking directly into the camera), often in close-ups.  Directed by Aleksei German, a lesser-known Russian auteur, Hard to Be a God is his final work, completed after his death. 

It’s an obstacle course of a film, with lots of hanging props and objects on the ground blocking the way (it literally redefines what ‘blocking’ means in mise-en-scene). 

There’s bountiful farting, spitting, vomiting, defecating, bloodletting, etc., plus a hell lot of mud, rain, and some shocking scenes of violence and gore.  Some critics have called the film ‘mudpunk’, assumedly a variation of ‘steampunk’; I prefer to call it purgatorial. 

Grade: A-


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