In 1995, the European Cinema Academy named Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov as being among the best directors of the world cinema. In view of his most recent feature, the 2000 production “Taurus,” the academy’s decision may be in need of an overhaul.
Sokurov has enjoyed a slight cult following among cine-snobs who believe any film that is subtitled in English must be a near-classic. This opinion is clearly not shared by U.S. distributors, who have conspicuously avoided bringing the bulk of Sokurov’s films into American theaters, and the general moviegoing public, who’ve probably never heard of the director. The continued absence of “Taurus” from theatrical exhibition can easily be explained if one is unlucky enough to catch it in the odd festival where it turns up…rarely has a work of a supposedly great director been so dreadful as this thoroughly awful film.
“Taurus” is centered in the summer of 1922 when Lenin, the father of the Bolshevik Revolution and the first dictator of the Soviet Union, is lying near death in a government house far from Moscow. Although physically feeble and emotionally wobbly, he is occasionally alert enough to know he is being eased away from the controls of power. When a military guard weakly explains that the Russian weather does not allow for telephonic connections between the house and Moscow, Lenin knows his time and input into the daily scheme of things has come to a close. But for the most part, lucent thought has long since passed him by.
For the course of “Taurus,” the audience is given little to do but watch Lenin (or at least a semi-reasonable facsimile in Leonid Mozgovoi wearing several pounds of bad make-up) die a slow and frequently ignoble death. The ignoble part comes primarily from his comedy relief wife, a dumpy woman who is either dropping things, dropping herself over Lenin’s inert body, or getting dropped by underlings pushing her out of the way. Lenin himself mutters endlessly and absurdly on matters ranging from torture to eating candy. At one point, Lenin and his wife go into a field of overgrown grass for a picnic, only to have Lenin wander off babbling to himself while his wife rues the tears in her stockings. Zzzzzzz.
Sokurov’s direction is stagnant and funereal, with most of the sequences limited to dimly-lit claustrophobic rooms which suggest there was very little money in this production to build proper sets or obtain professional quality lighting (the enclosed spatial aspect of the film frequently makes it look like a filmed play, although “Taurus” was actually written for the screen and is not based on a theatrical staging). None of the dialogue sheds any light on the events that lead up to the Bolshevik uprising and the tumultuous turnover from Lenin to Stalin. Instead, there are obscure running gags with Mrs. Lenin opening a diary of Karl Marx and inevitably starting on the wrong chapter (including a passage on revolutionaries getting their nostrils pulled out of their heads) and endless nonsense with Lenin trying to figure how to multiply 17 by 22.
Anyone seeking insight into Lenin’s mind and the personality who had one of the most profound effects on the 20th century will be sorely disappointed in the 90 minutes of groans, mumbles and non-sequiturs which is “Taurus.”