Directed by Alexei Gherman. In Russian, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.
Imagine if Jodorowsky had actually made Dune.
Hard to Be a God possesses something like the scope of imagination, courage, and virtuosity suggested by that aborted masterpiece. And tellingly, it took a full 13 years, not including three decades of prep, for Russian titan Alexei Gherman to complete his final film. Perhaps more tellingly, he died just prior to its release.
For us, the result is pure indulgence: three timeless hours in which we’re permitted to bathe our senses in a work of genius. But it takes a strong stomach. Hard to Be a God opens with a poet being drowned in shit, and then binges on distressingly tangible Boschian horrors up until a finale that comes on like a miracle.
Based on a cult novel by the same Russian sci-fi authors whose novel Roadside Picnic was adapted by Tarkovsky into Stalker, the premise here is that a planet conspicuously like Earth is stuck in a perpetual Middle Ages. The “God” of the title, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is one of 30 scientists sent to observe but not tamper with this dank and brutal world, but he can’t help himself from at least nudging its poor, suffering idiots toward some sort of enlightenment.
There are cuts in Hard to Be a God, although we barely notice them. Rumata’s odyssey suggests a single long journey through a claustrophobic sprawl of stone alleyways and Escher-like fortresses, with spellbinding cruelties encroaching upon every step of his journey, and every last frame of the film.
The detail is staggering, with Gherman’s camera becoming a participant as it swirls around Rumata like a fly, rubbing our noses in the endless filth, damp, and viscera, and often catching the curious glances and infantile mugging of a population that seems to be universally blighted by chromosome damage.
As with Tarkovsky’s ineffable film, viewing Hard to Be a God is like being confronted with one of the terminal documents of our age. It’s loaded with an elusive marriage of magic and meaning that will haunt, trouble, and amaze us for decades.