Imagine: when Stalin banned this film, it was because he felt it made the Soviet people appear weak. "Weak," he said, "and soft. It undermines our international image of strength."
"Besides," he added, "I don't know where he found such an ugly man to act."
Audiences who keep these comments in mind as they watch "Black Pearls" will be somewhat taken aback. The main character, Pyotr Andreyev, played by the redoubtable Dmitri Varenin, is a Russian in the days of the tsars, adrift in an unnamed Eastern European country. He comes, indeed, to embody his nationality, in the concentrated way exiles alone can do. Never, in the course of the film, do we encounter another Russian; his Russianness exists in a vacuum, as no one is able or willing even so much as to converse with him in his native tongue. This last is cleverly represented not by setting most of the dialogue in Czech or Polish, but through the demeanors of the players - though the actors speak only Russian, it is always clear when they can understand one another and when they cannot.
This trope plays out as a master stroke of direction and acting, highlighting the truth that inability to communicate goes far deeper than dialect. As E. M. Forster's Howard's End carried the epigraph, "Only connect," this film is the alternative, a spectacle of the profound effect disconnected souls can have upon one another. A quarter of the way into the movie, Pyotr has learned the foreign tongue, and we are then treated to a wonderful refraction of language. Now Russian is completely transformed into a stand-in for the unspecified language, but certain oddities of phrasing and expression subtly remind us that the Russian we hear is never again to be taken for Russian itself. Those Americans dependent on subtitles will find, by the way, that their experience is unimpaired. Sergei Toledo has faithfully rendered the resonances of the spoken word, and in fact the extra level of remove may add a certain additional frisson for the viewer.
Pyotr comes to be Russian in more than the usual sense, and so it is perfectly understandable that Stalin should have felt that the nature of this character reflected on the Soviet people as a whole. The wonder is his interpretation of the role. American audiences may well find Andreyev unsympathetic, but weak? Ugly?
It takes only an instant to refute Stalin's latter remark and little more to undo the former - the first shot of the film is of Varenin standing in a dense wood. At first his face is in shadow, as he adjusts the straps of his pack, but presently he lifts his gaze to a beam of light angling through the trees. Rarely is a face arranged to produce such an immediate and profound effect. He is nakedly a predator, but the threat is all the more terrible for its seductiveness. If he chose, he could seem as delicate and smooth as a peeled willow branch, despite his broad shoulders and near seven-foot frame. You would never be fooled into thinking him harmless, but he could nonetheless make you want to treat him as if he were. As that possibility hovers over his tremendous eyes, his crisp cheekbones and handsome nose (and I have never seen this movie without noticing the audience's sharp intake of breath at being confronted with such a dazzlingly attractive man), he reaches up casually and tears a branch, half a foot in diameter, from the tree beside him.
There is no attempt to explain the events leading up to Andreyev's exile. He steadfastly refuses to reveal anything his neighbors - later, subjects - might expect to be told. This is not to say that he is unforthcoming about this past; at his most tyrannical moments, he is especially inclined to reminisce about his difficult childhood. He never had a bicycle, he confesses, tears in his eyes. Loneliness plagued him night and day. It was his fondest dream to be a grandmaster at chess, but he could never remember the moves of the bishop and knight. Perhaps these scenes were the cause of Stalin's anxieties, but rest assured, their impact is quite otherwise.
A brief scene ensues in which a coven of villagers gather to speculate about this man who has come among them so mysteriously, who has managed so swiftly to become their ruler. "He must have been a great general where he came from," a woman suggests, glancing anxiously over her shoulder.
"No," says a younger woman, almost a girl. She blushes. "A great... courtier. You know."
"He might have been both," one of the men reminds them.
A tall man, stooping to avoid cracking his head on the roof of the cave, makes a dismissive gesture. "You think he has a homeland? Fah. Think again. Only humans have such things, and you know he is no human. A wizard, maybe, a vampire; I wouldn't be surprised to find he turned into a beast of the hills every Sunday."
"He is a Russian," the first woman says, and they subside.
The film is a masterwork of pacing. Just as it has thoroughly explored the murky progression of Andreyev's reign of personality, striking the perfect balance of disconcerting detail and ominous half-revelations, a new twist appears. Andreyev is, in his alien way, lonely. His musings of his tragic childhood have become more and more frequent. This project has begun to bore him. "When there was a question of how things might turn out, you were enough to keep me occupied," he tells a servant, who looks as if he would prefer to be killed than to be in a private conversation with the man. "Now..."
In the meantime, the citizens come to believe, or nearly believe, that some terrible cataclysm has befallen the rest of the earth. Beyond the edges of the forest, should they be so bold as to venture there, they will find only destroyed land and drifting ash. The film slyly implies that while they think this information came to them through Andreyev, one among their own ranks may have begun the tale. They take the notion not as a rumor, but as a sort of holy text on the validity of which the cult of Andreyev can be tried.
"If it's true, he is our savior," moans a girl, looking terrified into the night. "We are the luckiest people alive. The only people alive."
Her husband cuffs her ear. "If it's a lie, we're the most miserable wretches born."
Uncertainty about the origins of this new story settles uncomfortably over the scene: is Andreyev to be tested on the basis of an assertion he never made? Have the villagers convinced themselves that the only reason they permitted his rule is that they believed the rest of the world had been annihilated? We wish to see his rule shaken off, but not for these flawed reasons. And will there even be the time for it to come to the test, or will he grow restless beforehand and wander off? That too would be unsatisfying. The tension mounts.
Soon the entire community is convinced that someone must make the journey to see if the world outside still exists. They hold a meeting to determine who it will be - a majestically shot scene of torchlight chasing through the forest and disappearing into the dark hole of the cavern. They gather in the middle of the night (though one man sneers, "As if he sleeps") and emerge at dawn, stumbling into the grey fog in their seemingly vast numbers. One man will go: a thick-bodied peasant named Lajos. The next night, he will go.
After his departure, a week goes by. Two. Andreyev meanwhile grows increasingly petulant; he's either about to abandon them all, or to stage a massacre to relieve his impatience. The people cower in their homes, equally afraid that their enclave against the apocalypse will be left to disintegrate and that they will wake to their leader's sword against their throats.
Here is where "Black Pearls" descends into the truly chilling. Lajos is found, brutally murdered, in a snowy clearing. At last, the villagers cry, seizing his body and lifting it above the crowd. Of course, this proves it: terrified that they will discover his secret and hear of the world outside, Andreyev has murdered their witness. But in so doing, he has convicted himself. By trying to hide the truth, he has made its content perfectly clear. Carrying the body above them, the citizens gather into a massive, ferocious knot. They mount the hill to Andreyev's enclave.
Within, he lounges disaffectedly. When the mob breaks through his door, his only reaction is to raise his eyes slowly to see them. On first viewing, his gaze might seem soulful or resigned (again, perhaps the reason for Stalin's disapproval), but closer examination shows that they are nothing more that nigh-inhumanly bored. His ennui is monumental. As they fall upon him and tear him apart - one of the most brutal scenes in cinema, past or present - his expression alters but slightly: this is mildly interesting, at best.
As if this progression were not disturbing enough, the brief final scene makes it doubly so. Leaving the side of the celebrating villagers, it begins with a quick though unhurried pan through the forest. First, the bloody snow where Lajos' body had lain; then, in the woods nearby, a peasant knife, the likes of which we've seen in nearly every domestic scene among the villagers. Clearly, the killer was anyone but Andreyev. Before that information can be digested, we are back among the trees, moving faster now. The pines flicker by, soothing and gorgeous. The viewer relaxes into the portrayal of motion. The dappled green suddenly gives way and we are given the briefest view of a vast burnt plain, black and dead from horizon to horizon. It lasts at most for three seconds before blacking out to the end credits.
An interesting note: many viewers have speculated that a certain citizen, listed in the credits as "Knucklebones Player," (he appears twice, gambling at said game, greasy-haired and intent) is the saboteur. A small cult has formed around this theory, and the evidence to support the point is not inconsiderable. Through many subtle expressions and gestures, he draws a sinister attention to himself, building a keen impression that he is more than he appears. When the mob gathers around Lajos' body, he is calm in the midst of their chaos, a small smile playing over his lips, though the camera never lingers on this fact, rather shading him into the crowd. Finally, some claim that he is the lonely figure trudging in silhouette across the final panorama before Lajos is found. Whether that shot serves simply to provide a mood of pastoral quiet, a lull before the storm, or to imply that the figure is returning from the scene of the murder, it is unclear. Still, the scene is a credible clue.
However, Nikolai Molotov, the director and author of the screenplay (adapted from the epic poem by Stanislaw Kriokinow) denies that any intimation of the saboteur's identity is to be found in the film. "Sasha [Lipsitz, actor of the 'Knucklebones Player'] is a fine thespian, and I believe he created a complex character for himself in this part. But no, there is no reason to call him the actual saboteur. Perhaps it would be best if you think of him as a man who wants to feel he is 'in the know'. But he is not the man in question, any more certainly than any other of the characters."
Whether viewers choose to take this statement to heart, or consider it an instance of the intentional fallacy, the question is fascinating and left in the end to each viewer alone. An excellent film, not to be missed.