Review: Hard to Be a God

From my posting queue for busy days: It felt like the right time to set aside the Netflix series binge (which I typically have on the in the background when I’m working) and watch an actual movie. During the day when Myke is at work I generally go for the movies he has no interest in. I decided to go the arty route and watch Hard to Be a God. I didn’t realize it was three hours long or that it would make me feel like I needed a nice hot–CLEAN–bath every ten minutes or so. A bath with really fresh and fragrant bath salts in it and afterwards drying off with some very soft and comfy towels. Seriously. It did give me an interesting though strange movie to yammer about and yammer I will. It’s just taken me a week to make it through the whole film to get to the yammering.

Still from Hard to be a God

The film is based upon a book of the same name by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The basic plot is based upon a group of scientists from earth who are sent to the earth-like planet Arkanar to try and help influence the planet’s civilization that has stalled out in a primitive age; a dreary period much like the middle ages once known here. They’re not allowed to directly influence, use violence, or kill in order to do this. The story is mostly told through the viewpoint of Anton, one of these scientists who has assumed the identity of the dead nobleman Don Rumata and whom is also considered a god by some. He attempts to help save intellectuals and creative types from the religious zealots who are trying to keep civilization stunted through idiocy and fear. He comes to struggle with his role as observer who can’t directly involve himself in what is going on. Being a god-like creature (because of his advanced earth knowledge and hindsight garnered from his own world’s history) he finds himself asking the question what should a god do? That’s the gist at least, but it’ll be hard to take that from what you’re watching. The most coherent information is offered by a narrator in the first few minutes of the movie. After that things get a little wonky.

Still from Hard to be a God

Hard to Be a God, for me, felt like walking into a never ending, never pausing Joel Peter Witkin’s photograph that was staged in the middle ages. It has the same type of dull gray landscape that frames scenes that are surreal and sometimes grotesquely beautiful–with heavy emphasis on the gross. The first ten minutes of the movie is really all you need to take in if you want to experience that for a moment. The visuals are striking and bleak, the movie’s overwhelming claustrophobic nature is immediately felt, and you quickly get a sense of the very disjointed and odd way any type of dialogue is offered. After that it’s just a state of constant movement, confusion, mud, shit, piss, snot, and an amusing amount of the main character smacking people in the head or grabbing them by the nose. Your view in the film is also hampered by everyone being aware of the camera as if you’re actually a silent person in this drama following behind Don Rumata. It’s kind of like they took the fourth wall and nuked it into nonexistence.

If you’d like to experience this without the rest of my wordy review, then move past my wee more button below and have a go of it on Netflix. Don’t bother with the popcorn; you won’t want to eat anything while watching this film. If you’d like to instead read my rambling and spoilers, well my friend, move your mouse over to that wee more button and follow Akon’s wise words and smack that.

This film is listed as a science-fiction drama. This is NOT a science fiction film. I’ve never seen the two main films this one is compared to so I can’t vouch for it being a disjointed version of them. To me it was almost like–in some ways–Terry Gilliam trying to make a serious version of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. A reviewer on IMDB said that the MPHG scene for bring out yer dead pretty much summed up much of this movie for them. I actually agree with that. The director Aleksey German’s intent I’m sure was to stress how religious zealotry tries to stifle or even eradicate science and creativity to keep the ignorant masses easily controlled. Or even how heavy the weight of the world can be when you know better but can’t necessarily use that knowledge to do anything. I’m not sure how he got the idea to express it this way. For all the film’s seriousness there is still this underlying ridiculousness to it in the stumbling way everything progresses along. Like, for an example: Certain tortures are described in horrible ways but the stupidity of the person talking about them almost makes them sound comical. And while I know this might be to demonstrate how completely anti-empathetic these people are, it still left me wondering if I’d overlooked a poo covered comfy chair Easter egg.

The biggest issue I had (as did many others) was the movie’s incredibly striking and disturbing visuals that are paired with often incoherent dialog and sound issues. Actual thoughtful conversations (more of its book source material in there) coupled with the film’s events would have elevated it to a very different level on the arty farty scale. One reviewer said we should take this stunted dialog and remember that we’re dealing with uneducated people who probably don’t score well on the communication charts. Or that such a vague and hard to understand conversation fully illustrates how primitive the society still is. I might buy that if much of the important dialog wasn’t coming from the scientist or the non-villager individuals he interacted with. I want to think the director wanted the conversations to be as foreign and surreal as the visuals. How it comes across though, is someone who didn’t take the time to invest in a better written story or trust in their actors to deliver that story dramatically. Now let’s talk about those visuals.

As I first mentioned, there are barely any moments in this three hour film where you don’t feel an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. You can get away from it a little when the scenes are outside. Those that take place inside are just obnoxiously closed quarters and a personal space nightmare. I don’t think there was ever a scene where the main character Don Rumata didn’t have at least five people fluttering around him doing fuck-all who knows. Have you seen Primus’ video for Mr Krinkle? Then imagine a scene like that only with lots of strange middle ages people and the camera is not off to the side but right at the front of that odd procession. There’s always some type of filthy villager or slave/servant/who knows staring you down through the camera’s eye; sometimes with unknown things in hand that they’re showing off, sometimes with just blank stares, and sometimes just doing weird things. A bird might fly out of nowhere from behind the camera or then a random item that gets used to poke or annoy Don Rumata. The scenes are like Hoarders! The Dark Ages! There is filth of one kind or another everywhere and so much useless stuff. And rain. It doesn’t even matter if you’re inside. It’s always dripping water wherever you go. I don’t think the main character’s hair was ever dry.

As far as the story goes you’ll honestly have to look it up on Wikipedia to get a proper idea of it. Granted the movie does get more coherent towards the last hour; although that could simply be because by the time I made it there I’d read that plot summary. My summary here will be as wonky as the movie: You see Don Rumata is about saving the intellectuals from those who are trying to exterminate them. There’s this Dr. Budukh that has gone missing that he wants to find. He’s a wise man and Don Rumata has questions for him. Much of the first half of the movie is about trying to find this guy. Somewhere in there we meet the other earth scientists who are all bonkers and Dons as well. There too I’m reminded of Monty Python characters, only ones that are lacking all the comical whimsy and silliness; not to mention they side shoot nose snot to absurd degrees. There is talk of the failed Renaissance of this world and barbs about insults made to one anothers writings here and there. Then there’s the Baron, a massive and beleaguered gent who could do a mean impression of the ogre from Time Bandits. (You might be seeing a pattern here by now.) He and Don Rumata do a little dancing and chatting before Rumata returns to his castle. Don Rumata has a local gal he’s taken on as a girlfriend that we meet, who bitches a lot about someone telling her she’s a redhead before she has to go lock-destroyer to get a chastity belt off because silly her has the key to her mother’s belt instead. (Redheads don’t seem well liked in this planet–there’s a joke there that I’m not touching.) Somewhere in there is a plot about one of the other Don’s (a real one, not a scientist in disguise) knowing Rumata is an imposter and trying to oust him or blame something bad on him. There’s this thing between the Grays and the Blacks: The two separations in the society. Grays seem to end up more as wood collar wearing slaves and the Blacks seem to be mostly associated with the religious zealots. But both are all about overthrowing the other. After a lot of strangeness and mild action, Rumata finds Dr. Budukh and helps him and the Baron escape from the other Don’s dungeon. The Dr., that Rumata felt could help his plight, turns out to be a moron. This is found out through their misadventures in urinating. Then bad stuff happens to the Baron, which is the first thing that feels sincerely sad in this movie because I grew to like the Baron. An already upset Rumata returns home from his adventures to find many of his intellectual friends have been hung. And just when he’s thinking he might have gotten his poo calmed down something bad happens to his cray-cray girlfriend and he loses his shit. There is one strange spot where I almost thought he finally addresses the camera with a name and it’s revealed we’re seeing things from his servant’s perspective? Then I realize I think he was addressing a guy who was just off camera at the time. I’m not about to watch again to figure it out. No one else has mentioned it in their reviews so it’s probably my wishful thinking. It does help demonstrate the confusion of the movie though. After all of that, if you’re keeping with the notion that the weight of a god falls on Rumata’s tired shoulders, then the following footage would make perfect sense and be lovely for a fan video of How the Gods Kill by Danzig. An earth scientist finds an exhausted Rumata in the remains of the city’s dead and there is talk of Rumata returning to earth and him refusing. There is a brief attempt at a conversation that focuses on the film’s title theme. Finally clarinet solo out! That pretty much sums up what I took away from the movie. Let me remind you I had to read the plot summary to get half of that to boot. And whew! Lookit that massive rambling paragraph! That’s exactly how I felt moving through the movie with its constant fluttering forward.

I have to say, the one thing I did enjoy (as much as I could) from the movie was the antics of the actor playing Don Rumata. He kind of stumbles through much of the film in what can only be described as a half drunken state of what the fuck? So much so that there are moments where he pauses, looks at the camera, and starts to laugh as if he can’t even believe what they’re filming. His humor seems especially sincere at the end of the movie where a little kid is flinging (what is supposed to be) bird shit at him and he pauses a moment to laugh. The character also has little quirks like taking a moment to test out any musical instruments he encounters or things that can be used to chime out a tune. He starts the movie with a clarinet solo and ends the movie with one. (Actually, the movie starts and ends in similar fashion even though in different settings.) Music seems to be the one creative thing stressed in the movie, aside from minor bits about bad poets. I found that bit poignant. As an artist and lover of nearly all creative mediums I can’t think of a world without music or creation. Can you imagine this world if it never came out of the Dark Ages? As it stands, with what enlightenment we’ve had over the centuries, the place still has some pretty bleak moments.

If you’re a person who needs trigger warnings, please don’t even bother with this film. There is an absolute overload of the senses when it comes to the mud, shit, and general unhappy ickiness everywhere. This starts with the poet (I think he was a poet) who gets thrown head first into a crapper that the villagers measured with a stick to make sure it was deep enough to drown him in. And it goes all the way to one of the most awful contraptions for killing a whore I’ve ever seen. There are way too many dead domestic animal props too. There’s no happy to be found here. There’s probably enough shit (not as in stuff, as in poop) in this movie to put off the Southpark writers.

There isn’t a lot to be enjoyed about this movie to be quite honest. When it was all over I was left thinking yes, I basically get it but I didn’t feel the desire to go out and tell anyone this is a brilliant piece of thoughtful art cinema. I feel bad saying that as from all that I’ve read this movie was the director’s life’s passion and he died before finishing the very last of his work on it. The world has enough day to day issues though without wasting three hours of your life running through a black and white version of a Hieronymus Bosch fever dream of hell. However, if you suffer from the cinematic version of the disease must see something that almost feels forbidden as I do, then of course–put it on your to view list. It is available on Netflix.

As a hur hur afterthought: If I did feel the need to make my art house film nerdy friends sit through this I would suggest a jelly bean eating version of the drinking game. Any time Don Rumata (or anyone for that matter) looks like they took an honest stumble over a set entirely too crammed with stuff or real mud, you have to eat a jelly bean. Specifically Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and you can’t look at it before you eat it. I think getting dirt or booger would really add to the cinematic experience. 😉