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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

‘Tsar,’ a Tale of 16th- and 21st-Century Politics

TsarYankovsky, left, plays Metropolitan Filipp, with Mamonov as 16th-century Tsar Ivan the Terrible, in Lungin’s film.

“Tsar,” a powerful psychological and philosophical drama about the nature of Russian power, opens in Moscow on Wednesday.

The film, about Ivan the Terrible, is one that connects to how the country is ruled today, director Pavel Lungin said in an interview.

“Ivan the Terrible prevented Russia from moving into the Renaissance by keeping the country in the Middle Ages,” Lungin said. “After his reign, Russia was left behind in the process of progress throughout Europe. We have made no headway since that time.”

Pyotr Mamonov, better known as a musician and performer, and the late Oleg Yankovsky, an acting legend who died earlier this year, play the two main characters, Ivan IV and the head of the Russian church, Metropolitan Filipp.

“The aim of my film is to make people think about themselves, about their place in our society, about our history … I think modern viewers don’t want to think, they just want to consume and have a good time, so my film is an attempt to make them reconsider some values,” Lungin said.

The film was shown last month at a special showing at the State

Duma for deputies.

Opening in 1565, a time of troubles in Russian history, the film shows the tsar, with Polish armies moving in, growing paranoid about threats to his throne. He creates his own special police force, the oprichniki, who crush mercilessly any real and imaginary traitors. Lungin said they were like today’s corrupt police.

“Ivan the Terrible was the first Russian tsar who created the character of Russian power,” Lungin said, calling the tsar “in many respects bright and talented, but at the same time pathological, cruel.”

The bloodshed and injustice prompt the head of the Russian Church to resign in protest, and Ivan calls on his childhood friend Filipp Kolichev to accept the post.

His friend soon realizes that he too must oppose the tsar.

Ivan believes that he is the one chosen by God and that it was the tsar’s right to take the place of God on earth. “There is no greater sin than disobeying the will of the tsar,” he says in the film, declaring himself the supreme judge who has the right to administer divine justice on earth.

“We can see a lot of the characteristics of his power today,” Lungin said, adding that there is still no real agreement from the population with those in power, only “a senseless people’s love for the ruler.”

“The oprichniki were to punish people for a lack of love,” he said, adding that they have continually reappeared in Russian history from the time of Peter the Great to Stalin.

Mamonov is a favorite actor of Lungin’s, playing a monk in the much acclaimed film “The Island” and appearing in “Taxi-Blues,” his 1990 film which won two awards at Cannes.  

“I thought about Pyotr Mamonov from the very beginning when I decided to begin the film,” Lungin said. “There is something like a dual quality in his character: He can be deeply religious and cruel at the same time.”

Ivan the Terrible says in the film that, “As a man I may be a sinner, but as a tsar I’m just.” But Filipp, now Metropolitan Filipp, refuses to accept the tsar raising himself above the church.

It is a battle between “a heathen who worshipped power and force, and a true Christian,” Lungin said, describing Filipp as “a person of the Renaissance, a great architect, engineer, a saintly man, a real Da Vinci. ... He sacrificed himself in order to stop the bloodshed.”

The film has had mixed reviews from the film industry, but there has been nothing but praise for Yankovsky in his last film.

“Nobility, selflessness and inner beauty — these are the qualities I saw in Metropolitan Filipp when creating the film, and Oleg Yankovsky was that very person to express them. I saw chastity and beauty in his face. He was a great artist,” Lungin said.