Alexander Sokurov's version of the Goethe play arrived in Toronto fresh from winning the top-prize Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. "There are some films that change you forever after you see them," Jury president Darren Aronofsky proclaimed, "and this is one of them." Sokurov, Russia's leading and most controversial filmmaker, also got a high-five from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who called to congratulate him minutes after the award was announced. Putin was in a way the movie's executive producer: when the Ministry of Culture refused to finance Faust, Sokurov visited Putin's dacha outside Moscow and pitched the story. "The film would not have seen the light if Putin had not found the funding," the director told Agence France Presse.
The conclusion of Sokurov's "tyrant tetralogy" the first three focused on Hitler (Moloch), Stalin (Taurus) and Hirohito (The Sun) Faust is a free and borderline-freaky adaptation of the soul-selling classic. Beginning with the surrealist image of a mountain range (shot in Iceland) under a cloudy sky with a large empty picture frame dangling from a chain, the movie presents a Faust (Johannes Zeiler) who is obsessed less with learning all the world's wisdom than in importuning merchants and coroners to finance his research. Sokurov's Mephistopheles is no grand lord of the Underworld but a misshapen moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) with a crabby gait and tiny genitals on his butt; he is a cousin to the vampire Klaus Kinski incarnated in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu but missing Kinski's charnal charisma.
The film's imaginative images, shot in the narrow, old-TV ratio and virtually drained of color, are distorted by the director's favorite anamorphic lenses, which make people look as if their bodies had been clamped in a vise and then squeezed to the left. That is the feeling this moviegoer got from Faust: teased, stretched and twisted, but not forever changed.
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