Ugly Swans [Gadkie lebedi] (2006)

This one takes a bit of explaining.  Please, be patient.

I can remember when I first read of Andrei Tarkovsky’s magnificent film, Solyaris, in some book on SF cinema as a Russian 2001 (one of the most absurd claims ever).  It took a lot of hard work (not to mention a generous friend and a homebrew bootleg copy) to finally get to watch it.

Now the Criterion Collection has released a magnificent two-disk edition.

Today, Tarkovsky is probably the most copied director in the world – at least if you pay attention to what they’re showing at the major film festivals these days.  Ironically, he is also the most inimitable director ever born.

Konstantin Lopushansky was his protege and is an undeniably great director on his own merits.  Ironically, while his films are rightly described as Tarkovsky-esque, he rarely uses the long, lingering shots most of the imitators copy.

Most of his films take place in post-apocalyptic worlds, where things have fallen apart for reasons that are often unclear.  Ugly Swans opens with stunning footage of a forest fire seen from a passing train before taking us to a half-flooded city where it always rains.

There, a mysterious group, who appeared out of nowhere and may be mutants, run a boarding school for very special children.  They’ve allowed  reporter, Victor Banev to visit, but he is really there to try to rescue his daughter who is one of the students.

Looking at stills as I write this, I am stunned by how gorgeous this film is, despite the decrepit surroundings.  His use of color is unmatched.

But that is not the impression the film leaves:  instead one remembers the strange atmosphere, the sinister images of the mokretsy (literally the “wet ones”, although the version I saw called them  “Aquarians”), the sense of some great mystery, in the old religious sense of the word – and the glimpse Victor catches of something truly inexplicable.

It’s not for everyone.  It certainly isn’t for anyone who expects all the answers neatly handed to him with a feel-good ending.  It is a beautiful and stunning experience for those open to it – and as odd as this may seem to the Left Behind crowd, a deeply religious movie about what may be the end of the world.

(Ugly Swans is based on a story by the Strugatsky Brothers – who are probably the most-adapted SF writers in the world.  But how many American SF fans have even heard of them?)

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