Devil’s advocate

arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s taken nearly three years for Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust to get to the Bay Area. That seems apt for what was surely, in 2011, the least popular recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in decades. Jury chief Darren Aronofsky (whose own epic about God and man’s purpose and such, Noah, is stone sober by contrast) called it the kind of movie that “changes you forever after you see it.” Others — especially those who expect some resemblance to the “tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” the film claims to be based on, perhaps its first insidious joke — registered reactions in the general realm of “WTF?”

But mostly, this Faust simply hasn’t been seen very much, an odd fate for a fairly expensive art movie that purportedly Putin himself hoped would demonstrate the glory of modern Russian culture to the world. (Even if it is a German-language period piece shot in the Czech Republic.)

One can only imagine Vladimir’s subsequent dismay, and possible avowals to never again back auteurs without the surnames Bondarchuk or Mikhalkov — men who can be counted on to grunt out macho, patriotic cine-blintzes that in proud testament to national nepotism invariably get chosen as Russia’s official Oscar contenders. (Nikita Mikhalkov’s massive 2011 bust Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel nudged out Faust for that honor, prompting international hilarity.)

What can Sokurov be counted on for? He is a weirdo. Even his popular triumphs — 1997’s rhapsodic Mother and Son; 2002’s extraordinary 300-years-of-history-in-one-traveling-shot Russian Ark — are very rarefied stuff, disinterested in conventional narrative or making their meanings too clear. In production scale, Faust is Sokurov’s biggest project, which hardly stops it also being possibly his most perverse. Whose idea was it to give this guy millions of euros in anticipation of something beautiful, accessible, or at least non-maddening? Surely a few heads rolled at the Russian Cinema Fund, Golden Lion or no.

But whatever bureaucrats’ loss is our gain … finally. Faust is compellingly, often hypnotically dreamlike and grotesque, a film not quite like any other. It rings bells redolent of certain classic 1970s Herzog features, and of course Sokurov’s own prior ones (as well as those by his late mentor Tarkovsky). But it has a stoned strangeness all its own. It’s not 140 minutes you should enter lightly, because you are going to exit it headily, drunk off the kind of questionable homebrew elixir that has a worm floating in it.

Bruno Delbonnel’s camera dives headlong from celestial clouds into a clammy mittle-Yurropeon town in which the thin margin between pissy bourgeoisie and dirty swine is none too subtly delineated when a funeral march collides with a cartful of porkers. Starving — for love, for lunch, for any sign that God isn’t just a nagging personal delusion — is Professor Faust (the marvelously plastic Johannes Zeiler), whom we meet dissecting a corpse in his filthy studio. Asked by bonkers assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) where the soul dwells, he shrugs “There’s only rubbish in here,” yanking out the most gratuitous onscreen innards since Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Impoverished and hungry, the questionably good doctor is an easy mark for Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius Muller (physical theater specialist Anton Adasinsky), an insinuating snake who claims the soul is “no heavier than a coin,” and will happily relieve Faust of his in return for some slippery satisfactions.

Their endless day together encompasses a rowdy inn, the vaguely unsavory pursuit of dewy Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and finally a sort of death in a volcanic landscape that’s like the setting for a creation myth — one encompassing both the religion Faust resists and the science he practices merely as “something to do to fill the void,” comparing it to his inamorata’s knitting.

There’s also the revelation of a naked Muller at the baths as some sort of a-human, asexual fleshy lump, with useless penis-tail on his backside; the unrecognizable fleeting specter of Hanna Schygulla as Frau Muller; a monkey on the moon glimpsed through telescope; poor Wagner revealing the “homunculus” he’s bred from “oils of asparagus and dandelion mixed with hyena’s liver,” a pathetic tiny monster as doomed as the Eraserhead (1977) baby.

Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption, which otherwise consisted of druggy fantasias about real historical leaders: 1999’s Moloch about Hitler, which showed once at the San Francisco International Film Festival; 2001’s Taurus (Stalin), which hardly played anywhere; and 2005’s stilted The Sun (Emperor Hirohito), which rather inexplicably played everywhere. Coming complete with the director’s trademark distortion effects (in both color tinting and image aspect), Faust has a soft, queasy, pickled feel, like a disquieting dream too fascinating to wake yourself from. Andrey Sigle’s orchestral score rolls beneath dislocating visuals, a constant wave assuring no one aboard gains their sea legs.

For all actual mention of the soul in a script devised with prior collaborators Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva, this is a less “spiritual” film than many Sokurov has managed before. God (or whomever) knows you are likelier to sense his very Russian mysticism as a redemptive force in Mother and Son, not to mention 2007’s Alexandra or such Soviet-era cries in the dark as Days of Eclipse (1988) or The Second Circle (1990). Faust is beautiful in its distinctive aesthetics, even if its view of human existence is philosophically, ornately ugly. It’s also antic in the semi-subterranean way you might expect from a once frequently-banned artist raised in Siberia. Nearly a decade ago he said this project would be “a very colorful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate.” Always with the jokes, that Sokurov. *

FAUST opens Fri/18 at the Roxie Theater.