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The infinite journey
(Elegy of a Voyage, 2001)
Sokurov's latest addition to his series of filmic "elegies" takes viewers on a trip that transcends time and space. Andrew James Horton explores the film's themes.
The Russians attach to travel a far more emotional quality than most other nations. Before departing on a journey, for example, a Russian will traditionally sit on his suitcase for a few moments in reflective thought, and farewells at railways stations are exuberant displays of feeling. With such a deep-felt response, it should not be surprising that Aleksandr Sokurov, one of the most quintessentially Russian directors, has chosen to add "a voyage" to the list of subjects to which he has made a filmic "elegy." Previous elegy subjects have included Moscow, St Petersburg and Russia itself, seeming to confirm that he is limiting the series to themes which posses a great inner significance in the Russian context.
Elegiia dorogi (Elegy of a Voyage, 2001) is billed as a documentary, but the connection seems tenuous—if indeed it exists at all. The film is a series of oneiric images taken from a journey which a nameless narrator (even he questions who he is) mysteriously finds himself to be a passive participant of. We see him, but only from behind or looking down at his feet. A variety of modes of transport are used—walking, train, car, ship and even the suggestion of flight—to take the protagonist to a deserted, moonlit art gallery (in fact the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam). Here he looks round at the paintings (some of them missing, obviously hanging there only moments ago) before finding one labelled as being by Pieter Saenredam and dated 1765 which at first he thinks he painted. As the memories come back, he realises that he did not paint it himself but was standing by the artist at the time it was made. Surveying the canvas, he comments on its details, noting which ones the artist made up and which were actually observed.
Loss of identity
Sokurov, through films such as Mat' i syn (Mother and Son, 1997) and Moloch (1999), has become known as a master of the long take. But Elegiia dorogi shows a different side of him. The images are cut at a speed which—by Sokurov standards—are frenetic. Along with a voice-over that frequently overlays dialogue within the action and a rich score (using pieces by Chopin, Glinka, Mahler and Tchaikovsky), this makes Elegiia dorogi a far denser experience than the more famous films by the director.
Sokurov, however, proves that there is more to him as a director than a system of working, and the film is identifiably "his" even though it differs in many of the techniques used in other works. The similarity lies at some deeper level—the interest in spiritual uneasiness and loss of identity. In previous films, Sokurov has explored these themes in the context of ordinary individuals (Krug vtoroi / The Second Circle, 1990 or Mat' i syn), world leaders caught in their own political web (Moloch or Telets / Taurus, 2001) or even in the context of Russia's geopolitical position in a post-colonial world (Dni zatmeniia / Days of the Eclipse, 1988). In Elegiia dorogi, these are also highly pronounced features, perhaps even more so than in other Sokurov films.
The alienation from reality is far more literal in Elegiia dorogi, and the whole film could conceivably be a dream. The narrator apparently has no idea who he is; for much of the journey he seems to have no idea of where he is going or why; and he is, it would appear, totally at the command of some higher power (at one point he asks "Who is playing me so freely?"). This dreamlike state as well as being a removal from reality in its most basic form is also a metaphor for the more abstract removal from reality that we can experience in real life through the process of alienation. Yet Elegiia dorogi is a work about freedom more than it is about "spiritual oppression." As Alexandra Tuchinskaya points out "this unfettered dream, a dream about the infinitude of space and time, needs no frontiers or passports."
Elegiia dorogi yields few answers, and like many works by Sokurov leaves us scratching our heads. It ends when the narrator finds an identity, but as with other Sokurov films this is not so much a hard and fast resolution but the beginning of a new cycle of inner examination and existential inquiry. The voyage may be over, but there are further travels ahead.
Andrew James Horton
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1. Alexandra Tuchinskaya, "Elegy of a Voyage", The Island of Sokurov website, accessed 31 January 2002.
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