The film Viy is entirely faithful to its source material, both in content and tone. It neither deviates nor subtracts from the story, having well-founded faith that it's enough to carry the film. Its hero is a young seminarian, Khoma Brut (Leonid Kuravlyov), who, like all the other divinity students, spends his time carousing and making a nuisance of himself. Lost in the countryside, Khoma has a terrible experience at the hands of a witch, who rides on his back through the sky. Somehow Khoma turns the tables, whacking the hag with her own broom. The unconscious witch turns into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley), and Khoma runs home in terror. But the next day, a group of Cossacks come to the seminary seeking him out. The daughter of a Cossack chief (a sotnik) is breathing her last; she has requested Khoma be the one to pray for the repose of her soul over three nights.
|I wish God would let you smoke a pipe in church...|
There's a certain sort of character that only works in comedy, and Khoma fits into the mould. He's selfish, lazy, dishonest and a bit thick, but for all that he's pretty likeable and Kuravlyov carries the film. You warm to him.
|A curse. A curse.|
The sets and costumes are lovingly crafted, and the church, full of decaying icons and rotting furniture is lovingly decorated. And, oh my, when the demons come out! It's a treat. And while the techniques Ershov and Kropachyov use were being used in Hollywood twenty years previously, they are so confidently, effectively done that the film is a work of magic. I felt like I was nine again watching it (and I'm going to show it to my son as soon as I can, because I think he'll dig it). It's a long time since a film had that effect on me.
The Soviet film censor didn't seem to have a problem with Viy. I think that's partly because if you look at Soviet film, the influence of the censor seems to be overstated, and partly because the text has plenty in it that celebrates the salt-of-the-earth peasant, and presents the Russian Orthodox church as hypocritical and corrupt. Gogol, writing in 1835, clearly didn't have a lot of time for the Orthodox church. Were priests in training really so dissolute? I don't actually know, but the way Gogol writes it and the way it's presented in the film suggests that it's a stereotype, a thing you expect. The film, as the short story, pretends to be a folk tale, but it's really a comment on folk tales, and on folk customs.
|Come demons and succubi...|
Viy is a colossal creation of of the popular imagination. It is the name among the Little Russians of the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids droop down to the earth. This whole story is a peasant tradition, I was unwulling to change it, and I tell it almost in the simple words in which I heard it.Who is he trying to kid? It's a sharp satire and a tightly constructed, funny story. Gogol has more influence in this than you think (by the way, "Little Russians" is an old-fashioned way of saying Ukrainians; the Cossacks might be the romanticised Russian heroes, but they're actually Ukrainian. But you probably know all this).
|Sacred circle, sacred circle, protect me, sacred circle!|
|A Cossack isn't scared of anything.|
When I started this project, all I ever meant to do was clear a backlog off my film shelf. But as it's gone on, I've discovered some real gems that I never would have seen otherwise, and which I've found myself responding to. Viy is a thing of wonder and charm. Go track down a copy. You won't regret it.