Malmkrog review: Cristi Puiu convenes a big-house philosophical pile-on

Cristi Puiu’s latest adapts a philosophical novel by Russian mystic Vladimir Solovyov as a three-and-a-half hour roundelay of high-minded debate amongst six characters in a wintry mansion. It’s intellectually rich and rigorous, but undeniably arduous cinema.

Nick James
Updated:

Malmkrog (2020)

Malmkrog, Cristi Puiu’s follow up to his wonderful apartment family melodrama Sieranevada, arrived at the Berlinale, in its new Encounters section, as a 200-minute beast, reputedly turned down by Cannes and several other major festivals. That Malmkrog has too much about it to explain is part of its problem. It is drawn from an 1899 book by the Russian mystic philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, entitled War, Progress and the End of History: Three Conversations Including a Short Story of the Anti-christ, in which five Russians – a General, a Politician, a Young Prince, a Lady and a mysterious figure called Z – meet in the garden of a mediterranean villa and engage in wide-ranging religio-philosophical conversation. It’s a tough basis for any film.

Sieranevada – first look

Solovyov, a friend of Dostoevsky’s, was also a model for Alyosha in The Brother Karamazov. He originally rejected the Orthodox Church in favour of nihilism but then, horrified by Western positivism, joined in a Christian Slavophile defence against the West’s influence. In later life, however – when the Three Conversations was written – he argued for a rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Many of the various positions he held are represented in argument during the course of this film. 

Puiu changes the locale, personnel and structure of the book, but not the subject matter. A snow-shrouded mansion in the Transylvanian mountains is now the location, described in an elegant opening shot of a child being called from the frozen forest into the house as a herd of sheep arrive. Thereafter we are mostly inside the gorgeous interior of this pile owned by Nikolai (Frédéric Schultz-Richard), one of six main characters, each of whom get a section devoted to them. We mostly watch them debate while servants ghost around them and sometimes tend a bedridden old man called ‘the Colonel’, who perhaps represents Tolstoy.

The General is leaving as the film begins, but he sets the ball rolling with a complaint against Tolstoyan pacifism. “Does a Christ-loving glorious Tsarist army exist at this moment, yes or no?” What he means by this question is explained and expounded in great detail by Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), a grand, eloquent lady of distinction. It comes down to this: is there not some glorious Christian purpose in enacting military revenge on the practitioners of barbarous evils? Olga (Marina Palii) best typifies the Tolstoyan pacifist opposition to all violence, but she is young and is attacked by Nikolai and affable, take-it-or-leave-it Edouard (Ugo Broussot).

Olga maintains her cool until she faints – one of several dramatic grace notes, some jokily self-referential to the difficulty of following the film, which break the deliberate monotony. Edouard argues for European culture over religion, while Madeleine (Agathe Bosch) remains archly but spikily evasive. The real genius of sophistry, however, is Nikolai the landowner himself, who looks more devilish the more you watch him as he tries to further demolish Olga’s ‘simple’ certainty that there was no such thing as Christ’s resurrection. One can reflect passingly on a lot of contemporary concerns as the arguments tumble by: war, nationalism, morality, the coincidence of the idea of The End of History with Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 tenet of neoliberalism, even green issues.

But what’s it like to watch? It’s people holding poses in rooms shot in deep focus and lit from outside, as a snow-surrounded house would be. There’s a parsimony of cuts and camera movements, and a rather flat atmosphere. Although I got a lot out of this rigorously crafted intelligent work, I can’t in all conscience – conscience being a major topic here – recommend this film to the many. It’s too richly complex for the medium of film to convey, impossible to fully take in if you have to read subtitles while trying to think about big moral and philosophical questions: you miss too much of the acting, even if they are standing in semi-frozen tableau.

 

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