Quick-Thoughts: Sergey Bondarchuk’s War and Peace Parts I-IV (1965-1967)

Screened at The Frida Cinema

War and Peace Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (1965)

Part one is a complete atmosphere setup. Any deep character development or narrative is superseded by rather deep immersion and thought-wandering into the luxurious lifestyle of rulers and their sporadic transformations into war mindsets, where focused conversations take place amongst thick shots full of speaking extras, complimented too by an ambitious range of grounded or surreal compositional styles. The sweeping camerawork, bodacious editing, and use of transitional graphics in this feels long and ahead of its time in terms of what an epic can do as well. The film ends off so strongly with a dreamy and existential outro that briefly called me back to those unshakable feelings I had while watching something otherworldly such as the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as a character prepares to leave his home for battle. 

Verdict: B+

War and Peace Part II: Natasha Rostova (1966)

Part two somehow manages to come off as both a welcoming yet equally tortuous interlude. The film’s intentionally extensive filling in of time with innate cheers towards mindless cultural activities and idealistic + optimistic philosophy puts you right in the existential position of a woman waiting for an expected lover to be with her, in which a year then feels as if it were an eternity; it’s evocative of the moral confliction and lovelessness of the women left alone during war. The technical professions appear impressive here like the previous counterpart, but applied to a far smaller scale. Everything though still feels narratively simple, but with its compensation again being found in the sheer hypnotic-state that the visual splendor and underlying of subtle crisis do to directly transport you into the dull and depressing speed of these “royal” character’s tedious day to day lives. 

And for the second time now: please world, popularize side-split editing again!

Verdict: B

War and Peace Part III: The Year 1812 (1967)

Part three features about an hour of nonstop war porn. To this day, I genuinely can’t comprehend how filmmakers are able to pull-off epics, let alone, ones made on THIS vast of a scale. From the quick pans, long takes, euphoric sky sweeps, and some of the largest landscape shots of all-time, it’s nothing short of a miracle that we’re capable of making movies that look like this, let alone, historical ones. Arguably the most beloved chapter of Sergey Bondarchuk’s work, The Year 1812 terrorizes viewers during this outbreak recreation of violence with laughter that seems to lurk in every corner of destruction, laughter that’s used to cynically lighten-up the soldier’s likely demise. There’s a constant fear of death emitting from our second in command as well, and by the end we hear his mother’s innocent lullaby lead us out of a twenty-five-thousand bodied battle in need of solace.

Verdict: B+

War and Peace Part IV: Pierre Bezukhov (1967)

Rarely is the aftermath of battle not just as or even crueler than the battle itself. Part four thrashes us into a stage where circumstances have become so atrocious that pillaging, destroying the enemies’ homes, and imprisoned survival is somehow able to come off as mercy from the victors. The first half of this is as brutal and jaw-dropping as its predecessor, but it sort of loses momentum in the second half. It’s nice to see it end, however, on some tame optimism and uncovered awareness while repeating its original philosophical hypothesis, which has circled back seamlessly to this solid ending. 

Verdict: B

“War and Peace” is now available to stream on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

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