Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I spent much of the 431-minute running time of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 “War and Peace” wondering if spectacle, in and of itself, can be considered a kind of art. “War and Peace” doesn’t work as drama, as history, or as philosophy. And while it’s faithful to the general shape of Tolstoy’s novel (sometimes overly so), it mangles its meanings, and doesn’t even attempt to evoke its delicacy or naturalism. For Bondarchuk, a movie is a succession of set-pieces. Connective tissue isn’t his thing. When he wants to communicate an idea, he does it in voice-over, in Tolstoy’s words, with the camera tracking the character to whom the words are meant to apply. It’s primitive, like the title cards that pop up in silent movies to thematize a character or situation. But the great silent directors used their titles sparingly and with precision. Bondarchuk seems to resort to the voice-over whenever he realizes that the material he’s filmed hasn’t provided adequate information; it’s a crutch. All of that said, I would heartily recommend “War and Peace” to anyone who appreciates movies. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the grand spectacle — the oversized director’s folly — can be the most vital type of movie, because it activates our senses and expands our notions of what movies can do. Bondarchuk is consciously taking on Griffith and Gance — he’s trying to make the biggest movie of all time, to tell stories in new ways. The Soviet government provided him with a budget worthy of a national-defense initiative (the Battle of Moscow took two years to film) and gave him armies to play with. Who can resist the lure of such grandiosity? Fortunately, Bondarchuk has a supremely acute eye. Almost no image is underplayed (this is both a virtue and a vice). If the movie suggests another art form, it’s painting. There are Turners and Bruegels and countless versions of those high-angle battle scenes popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. There isn’t much to say about the performances. I rather liked Bondarchuk in the role of Tolstoy’s surrogate, Pierre, though I’m not sure why, and the movie fumbles the character’s progression from Continental misfit to Russian New Man. Ludmila Savelyeva, the ballerina who plays Natasha, the incarnation of the Russian spirit, looks like a combination of Audrey Hepburn and Anna Karina, and she gives one of those tremulous, edge-of-hysteria performances that remind you that young women can be captivating and frightening in equal measures. The ballroom scene in which she makes her society debut is probably the best in the picture, and she is very charming doing a peasant dance in the section set in the hunting lodge.