Here’s another potent reminder of why I’ve always loved Soviet era Science Fiction films.
Now I’ll admit that part of the reason is the same reason I’ve always loved foreign made Science Fiction Movies: that they are often free of the old cliches which infect so much of our own output. While it is true that sooner or later you will start noticing their own cliches, but even they can be a refreshing change.
But perhaps the biggest reason is that these Soviet era films are notably more intelligent than their American counterparts.
Which, yes, may mean that they are drier and more talky than what most Americans are willing to accept.
What stands out about The Kidnapping of a Wizard, however, is the rather strange setup and the unusual structure of the story.
Anna has returned to her hometown after a long absence, only to find that two men have moved into the house she rented. When she complains about it, they show her a video message from her landlady on a portable TV.
And, even stranger, they keep talking about a battle which took place in the Twelfth Century, only they talk about it as if it were about to happen the next day…
There have been an absurd number of time travel films, and it is a pleasure to see one which takes such a laid-back approach: Anna walks through a doorway in the old house she is staying in, and finds herself in the abandoned church down the road, with a stone plinth in the center, surrounded by throne-like stone chairs shaped like human hands. There is a transparent sphere which appears and shows them the past, but there are no massive control panels, just a small, ball-shaped, hand-held wireless controller. Nor do we actually witness the process that sends people back to the past. They are content to give us the impression of an advanced technology at work with a minimum of the usual flash and dazzle we expect.
As I said, it is a pleasant change.
Instead, what is important here is the story, about agents sent back from the future to find and collect all the brilliant men they can. The idea behind this is that, although their historical work was limited by the knowledge that was available at the time they lived, once you updated their knowledge, they could still make brilliant new discoveries in the future world these time agents came from.
Okay, I’ve got a few doubts about that one. After all, as fully grown adults, their basic outlook on the world would already be well established, and they might have a hard time thinking creatively in a system whose ideas went against their fundamental beliefs.
But, whatever you may think of the idea, they are there to rescue a genius from his impending death. Unfortunately, they have no idea what he looks like, and only minimal information to work with.
Most of the early part of the film takes place in the small town setting, with the young woman and the mysterious interlopers, although more and more of the action moves to the Twelfth Century as they first watch what is happening, and then send one of the two strangers into the past. Our first glimpses of this past — and of the battle which will shortly destroy the fortress — are in black and white, with no sound, a touch I quite like. It’s as if we were repeating the history of cinema.
They also learn something far more extraordinary: Anna looks just like the Princess back in the Twelfth Century.
Which is remarkably lucky, that’s all I can say. I’m not even sure they throw in a suggestion that she is Anna’s ancestor.
I found myself thinking that the story — and the fundamental surprise at the end — reminded me strongly of some of the Strugatsky Brothers’ stories. So it came as little surprise to learn that it was written by another highly regarded Soviet Science Fiction writer, Kir Bulychyov. He also wrote the story which became the moderately impressive The Witches Cave the same year this film came out. It also combined swords and supposed sorcery with a science fiction storyline, although it isn’t quite as successful as this film. Several other familiar Soviet SF movies were based on his stories, including To the Stars by Hard Ways and a number of children’s films like The Lilac Ball, The Mystery of the Third Planet, Prisoners of Yamagiri-Maru and the highly regarded miniseries, Guest from the Future. However, from what I’ve seen I doubt that he was as good a writer as the Strugatsky Brothers.
For me, the best part of The Kidnapping of a Wizard was that I had never heard of it before. It came as a complete surprise to discover this unique film, with its unusual structure and intriguing approach to its story. It helped that the official descriptions didn’t explain enough of the story to catch its curious nature.
And it is always a plus when a film you try on a whim proves to be far better than you expected.
Intelligent Science Fiction doesn’t always do well with American audiences, who are quick to label it as slow or dull. And they might say that about The Kidnapping of a Wizard, even though much of the story revolves around political intrigue, betrayals, war, murder and violence.
And, yes, brief but unexciting moment of nudity.
To be fair, though, while all this is going on, Anna and the strangers are reduced to mere spectators, who watch past events and then discuss them.
While it isn’t a great classic, Pokhischcheniye Charodeya still stands out as a solid and thoughtful piece of speculative ficition, which comes to a somewhat unexpected end.
It may be a bit hard to find, but those of you who love intelligent Science Fiction — whether it comes from the Soviet era or not — it will be worth the effort…