On first clapping eyes on the poster for the film`Gogol: Nachalo` (`Gogol: The Beginning`), before its release on the 31st of August, I was already a bit intrigued. With its tagline of `The darkest hour is before dawn` and from the blood splattered feather-pen which Gogol was holding, I could see that this was to be no ordinary biopic but more something designed to appeal to the Gothic teen market.
After all, the director, Egor Baranov already has controversial form as the producer of `Russia’s first erotic thriller` (`Sarancha`). Made with the Sreda film company, this film takes as its hero none other than Nikolai Vassillevich Gogol whose time was the early to mid-Nineteenth century.
Gogol, a Ukranian born scribe and critic of corruption, did much to influence the course of Russian literature. So rich was his output that he has been credited with being one of the first realists, as well as one of the first surrealists. One of his short tales – `Viy` (1835) was adapted to the Russian big screen in 1967, creating one of the Soviet period’s only horror films. It seems that `Gogol: The Beginning` hinges on this more morbid and fantastical end of his writings, for here the author has been remodelled as a psychic detective battling with demonic forces.
What we get is a lavish costume drama with much attention to period detail – the old wooden stave houses and the portable desk that Gogol has around his neck for example. Meanwhile, the lighting and photography seems cold and only an oversized nighttime moon serves to remind us that we are in a fairytale land.
The tales moves from the St Petersburg of 1829 to the contrasting village of Dikanka, which Gogol was later to immortalise. This was the period in Gogol’s life when he was toiling as a sector clerk. In the film, he is saved from this, however, when a police inspector (Oleg Menshilov) notices that he has useful insights following his epileptic seizures – and invites him over to Dikanka to help solve some strange events there.
The Gogol in this film is a palefaced and reluctant hero, a sort of Russian Edgar Allan Poe, who cannot even bear to have a snail in his bedroom. He spends much of the action falling into visionary fits until it becomes difficult to tell what is happening in the real world and what is part of Gogol’s crazed mind. (Gogol is played by the 26 year old Alexander Petrov whose versatility is shown by the fact that here he seems a world apart from the impassioned street fighter that he played in `Prityazheniye` from earlier this year). There are some biographical references incorporated into the film’s plot– Gogol’s fear of premature burial, his burning of his own books – and one of the ghosts is an empty overcoat (geddit?) These gestures are not enough save the film from accusations of trivialising a Great Russian man, however. (Even the producers turned up at the premier wearing T-Shirts with `Sorry Gogol` printed on them!) I found Petrov’s diffident hero to be likeable, nevertheless, and wondered if he might generate interest in the real man among all the Russian teenagers tweeting through their Russian literature classes.
Roskiskaya Gazeta said of the film: `As a horror B- movie it is not so bad`. For me it was not real-world enough to count as horror – the clearest comparison was with a fantasy fable like Tim Burton’s `Sleepy Hollow` (1999) and only a bit of gore, in a post-mortem scene for example, seem to justify the 16+ rating. Moreover, it is just one part of an ambitious four part series. Maybe the latest in chapter will be in the cinemas soon, but I am not sure if I will bother.