Elegy Of Life

Elegy Of Life


Reviewed by: Robert Munro

Aleksandr Sokurov’s stately documentary Elegy of Life details the career of Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the singer Galina Vishnevskaya. Rostropovich passed away in 2007, a year after the documentary was completed, adding poignancy to Sokurov’s adoring film.

Rostropovich appears to have been considered one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, so much so in fact that at the beginning of the film, as Sokurov records a rehearsal in Vienna in front of adoring fans, Rostropovich is approached by a fellow musician from the orchestra for an autograph. Rostropovich, looking a little embarrassed, obliges.

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For those without much interest or knowledge of classical music, the film can be struggle. While Sokurov does provide background information on Rostropovich, and his wife Vishnevskaya, on what it is that sets them apart as a kind of Russian royalty within the classical music scene, it remains hard to get a grasp on why the two were so revered. There is little in the way of archive footage, perhaps showing virtuoso performances to excite the imagination.

What makes the film entertaining enough during its runtime is the insights of Sokurov himself. His emotive reaction to meeting and filming the couple come from a clear sense of awe and respect. It is in the little details that he captures - the adoring fans gazing on intently at the rehearsal, or Rostropovich wiping down his bow after a performance – and the whispered voiceover that accompanies them that helps to contextualise the duo somewhat, through the filtration of his personal admiration.

Allied to that, the two are interesting interviewees. Rostropovich talks at length with Sokurov at his home, and is full of impassioned and intelligent observations. He declares that within 50 years aliens will land on earth and make history the notion of geographical territory on the planet. We will all be earthlings with earth passports, as opposed to the passports of the folk from Jupiter. What Rostropovich is getting at is the interesting relationship art has with the globalised modern world. How do geographical and historical differences produce a multitude of art forms across the world. He asserts that now “everyone can play the same”, whether those musicians are Japanese, Mexican or Russian. “In Mexico”, he says, “they never used to know who Bach was.”

However, these moments are rather to few and far between for the film to remain wholly engaging for the uninitiated. In addition, Sokurov’s stylisation of the documentary is unremarkable. Filmed on video, the image isn't of a particularly high quality and the transitions from scene to scene often appear naff and needlessly affected, such as when one shot wipes into another, or he fades up from a greyscale image to a colour one. There also often tedious breaks in which, for example, Sokurov will fill the screen with text detailing the numerous awards that the couple have garnered throughout their career.

A film that will no doubt appeal to those already with an interest in classical music, or Russian culture, but perhaps not those who come to the film with an appreciation of Sokurov’s feature films.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2012
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A documentary about the famous musician Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya.
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Director: Alexander Sokurov

Writer: Alexander Sokurov

Starring: Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Aleksandr Sokurov, Krzysztof Penderecki, Seiji Ozawa, Boris Yeltsin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Year: 2006

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: Russia


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