(Aleksey German, 2013)
You know the sequences in Spaghetti Westerns where the director (be it Leone or Corbucci or Sollima or Petroni) exposes the audience to the truth of the West by showing us ordinary life? It may just be twenty seconds before our protagonist rides into town, or a glimpse into the dark corners of the saloon he's just wandered into, but it is generally there, in every Spaghetti Western, continuing to demythologise and revise the classical view of the old West. Usually it consists of extras with "interesting" faces, scratching themselves, squabbling, stuffing food into rootless gobs, being lazy or lustful or disgusting, featuring sweat-stained clothes and gleaming, stubbled, frequently misshapen people, with exaggerated sound design so that every grunt and muttering is audible. This is what the world is like, these sequences seem to say; full of filth and brutality and idiocy, signifying nothing.
Well Hard to be a God is like that. Except it is set in a Medieval world. And it lasts for three long hours.
The sci-fi basis for the story - from the novel by the Strugatskys - is laid out briefly, then basically ceases to be relevant as German gets carried off by his self-indulgent - if genuinely astonishing - technical brilliance. The film follows Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolink) on a journey across the planet Arkanar. Discovered years earlier by scientists at a Medieval stage in its development, an experiment was carried out to try to spur it into a renaissance. Only the experiment has backfired disastrously and the culture has utterly rejected intellectualism. Men have been hanged, the university closed down, and a war has broken out. Don Rumata wanders among these people, who fear the power of his armour and weapons while he remains indifferent, beyond caring.
German shoots all this in beautiful, shining black and white in his signature long-take style, and the way he seems to have constructed a flawless 360 degree reality around his camera is stunning. But that effect wears off after half an hour or so, while the film runs for another two and a half, repeating itself over and over and over. Don Rumata passes something vile or awful, the camera lingers briefly, perhaps he interacts - though rarely in any way "dramatically" - and then he is moving on, to the next iteration of the same thing, the same thematic point, restated. And though I know that that itself is German's point; that nothing changes or progresses, that mankind is doomed, I was bored after that first 40 minutes or so, and that lasted right up until the last ten minutes, when the rhythm and the action changes.
All the technical accomplishment in the world cannot make up for how utterly humourless and grim this film is.