Tag Archives: Russia

Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Viking film 2016

(I did a preliminary review of this movie yesterday. I’ve watched it a second time now, and am prepared to pontificate.)

Viking, a Russian film directed by Andrei Kravchuk and much anticipated by Viking buffs, arrived last winter with all the acclaim of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime. Critical response was mixed, and the film got almost no US distribution. The DVD is available, though, now, and you can own it. It’s worth viewing, but I expect you’ll agree that it’s a movie in search of an audience.

The film is based on the career of the historical Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev, the man who converted the Russians to Christianity and is revered as a saint. He did not come by his sainthood gently, though, as the film makes clear (the history here isn’t bad, considered in very broad strokes).

Vladimir (Danila Kozlovsky) is the youngest of three brothers, descendants of Vikings, and each the prince of a different Russian town, in the 10th Century. Vladimir is the least of them, not only in age but in status. He’s the son of a slave woman, and touchy on the subject. The eldest brother’s men murder the middle brother, after which Vladimir arranges the killing of the eldest. Now he’s the sole prince of all the Russ, but he has to prove himself worthy. He takes a high-born wife (Aleksandra Bortich) by force, and digs up and restores what they call “Father’s God,” a bloodthirsty idol worshiped by his late father, who was revered for his strength. Vladimir hopes to acquire that same strength, at the price of human sacrifice. Continue reading Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Viking stuff on a winter night

Andrew Lawler, at National Geographic, writes what I consider a very fine article about slavery in the Viking Age. For years I’ve been arguing against the current fashion for portraying the Vikings as peaceable but misunderstood businessmen. That’s both historically obtuse and insulting to a culture that took pride in its prowess with arms. I’m particularly annoyed by the trope that says, “Well, you know, most of them weren’t warriors but peaceable tradesmen.” I suppose you could say that, if you consider the slave trade a peaceable occupation.

“This was a slave economy,” said Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who spoke at a recent meeting that brought together archaeologists who study slavery and colonization. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”

Of course the Vikings were hardly alone in trading and keeping slaves. Other cultures that did much the same thing were… pretty much everybody.

I just get annoyed by the “peaceable tradesmen” line.

In other Viking news, there’s new Russian film that looks very intriguing:

This is an epic about Vladimir the Great, who made the Russians Christian. Like all great historical epics it’s probably stuffed with baloney, but it sure looks good. I can find some fault with the costumes, but this trailer just sings. It could be the good Viking movie we’ve waited for so long. Hope it comes out soon with English subtitles.

‘Laurus,’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

Angels do not tire, said the Angel, because they do not scrimp on their strength. If you are not thinking about the finiteness of your strength, you will not tire, either. Know, O Arseny, that only he who does not fear drowning is capable of walking on water.

My friend Dale Nelson recently recommended this newly translated Russian novel to me. It sounded intriguing, so I read it. The book was Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, a novel unlike any other I’ve read – and I expect you’ll feel the same.

On the surface, Laurus is a simple modern version of a traditional hagiography, a saint’s life. Arseny is an orphan born in 15th Century Russia. He is raised by his grandfather, an herbalist healer. Arseny becomes an herbalist too, and eventually surpasses his teacher. He gradually realizes that the herbs he uses are almost irrelevant; God has placed healing power in his hands.

But Arseny commits a great sin, which fills him with guilt. His whole life, and the course of his story, are afterward dominated by his passion to somehow do penance and gain salvation, if not for himself, at least for the ones he hurt. From being a renowned and revered healer he descends into amnesia, wandering in poverty as a “holy fool.” Then he becomes a pilgrim, on the road to Jerusalem. On that journey he meets an Italian friend, Ambroggio. Ambroggio is devoted to studying the problem of the nature of time – this is dramatized by the fact that he wholly believes that the world will end in 1492, but at the same time often has visions of events centuries beyond his time. He sees no contradiction in this.

After his pilgrimage, Arseny returns to Russia and becomes a monk, and then retires to the life of a solitary hermit (that’s where he is given the name “Laurus,” the last of several names he bears in his life). He dies very near the place he was born, reliving, in a higher key, the crisis of his early life.

Laurus is an eccentric book which operates on a number of levels. As in a medieval book, dialogue is not indicated by quotation marks. You have to figure out where characters’ speeches start. You might call the book Christian fantasy, but there are also elements of science fiction – speculation on the nature of time is central to the whole thing. Arseny doesn’t experience his life quite in sequence, and there are anachronisms – like plastic water bottles lying as litter in a medieval forest – that have been put there for a reason.

Theologically, Protestants like me aren’t going to be entirely satisfied with the story. The doctrine here seems to be that grace is not free – at least for great sins, one must first show penitence through costly sacrifices, and then – if God is convinced of one’s repentance – forgiveness may be granted. Arseny suffers greatly to serve others, denies himself about as much as is physically possible, works miracles, and yet is never sure of his salvation.

But that’s probably (I don’t know for sure) true to Orthodox theology, and so makes the book historically authentic. It’s certainly a moving story, though it can also be quite funny. The translation by Lisa C. Hayden is highly readable.

There’s some disturbing material, but nothing that should offend the average Christian reader. I recommend Laurus. It would reward repeated readings.

Life in Finland, Russian Neighbor

Last year, writer Sofi Oksanen opened her talk at the PEN World Voices Festival with “I bring greetings from the bordering countries to Russia.” Her topic was the ever-present threat Russia poses to her country.

Welcome to the nerve-wracking reality of being Finland. To a casual visitor, it seems like yet another Western European country, a placid paradise with its abundance of bicycles, its obsession with its own mid-twentieth-century design, and stores that close punctually at six in the evening. The Finns feel otherwise. When they go to neighboring Sweden, they say they are “going to Europe.” As it happens, neither country is a member of NATO, but only Finland has a long land border with Russia—and a living memory of having been invaded by the Soviet Union.

(via Prufrock)