I then figured out what actually happened by reading Wikipedia.
Hard to Be a God is this year's celebration of Al's birth, and my annual punishment for allowing him to survive another year.
It is, ostensibly, the story of a scientist who was sent with a group of others to a world very like Earth, but roughly 800 years behind in development. They originally thought it was about to experience its Renaissance, developing scientifically and culturally. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Instead, the world's great thinkers and artists were killed, and it remained stuck in the Dark Ages.
...honestly I'm still not fully sure on the details. Here's what I did get out of it (before Wikipedia).
Spoilers follow, not that I give a crap.
One scientist decided to take the name and identity of a local noble, Don Rumata. How is never really explained that I could tell. This isn't exactly "lying low" or "noninterference" by my understanding, but his fellow scientists don't seem particularly upset with him when they meet up, so I'm guessing this ain't exactly "Prime Directive" level of importance to them. Anyway, as Don Rumata, he's supposedly the son of a god, and...
...look, he pretty much just dumped the mission, okay? That's what I can tell, anyway.
Anyway, for one reason or another, he's tried to summon a doctor named Budakh to his lands, but the doctor is taken captive by a rival Don, Don Reba (I'm not clear on if this Don is also one of the scientists or if he's a local). Rumata goes on a journey to try to find Budakh. Along the way, he meets a local Baron that's a friend of his, gets arrested, escapes arrest...um...I think it was because one of Don Reba's men betrayed him, or...
...honestly it gets kind of foggy around there. It might have been Don Reba himself ordering Rumata freed because it was...interesting?
Things happen, and eventually Rumata's Baron friend is killed while he and Rumata try to escape what I assume was Reba's castle, Budakh turns out to just be an idiot, and Rumata finds his own homeland taken over by some kind of religious zealots. They kill a girl he's fond of, so he kills their leader, and then we're shown the aftermath of a huge battle in which Rumata killed a bunch of people. Maybe. Then he leaves his lands.
I'm just going to go ahead and link to the Wikipedia article here, because apparently there was a whole lot of other stuff that I was supposed to get out of this movie, but all that I comprehended was the above.
Hard to Be a God is simultaneously a cinematic achievement and a boring slog.
It is masterfully directed, with every shot planned to be as unsettling and uncomfortable as it possibly can be. It is dark, moody, and depressing as all hell. Shown entirely in black-and-white, it feels coated in grime. Every scene has some kind of dirt or filth. It is almost everywhere in the film. We are never shown an area that is clean--not even remotely, not even by Dark Ages standards. Even the areas inhabited by nobles are utterly horrible to look at, full of cramped corners, hobbling madmen, diseased servants or peasants, diseased nobles, and above all, filth, filth, filth.
Do not watch this film if you are a germaphobe! I swear I feel like I caught like 7 different diseases from viewing it.
It's not just the scenery, either. Not only are people constantly covered in dirt and grime, it seems like they're constantly smearing some kind of muck on themselves or others, getting coated in blood, or otherwise getting covered in some manner of yuck. People dig in muck for no apparent reason, grab filth and smear it on their faces, have donkeys crap in bags and then hurl them at people...
It's really gross is what I'm getting at.
And of course it is very frequently raining buckets.
I'm surprised they didn't pan up and show a giant vomiting to cause the rainstorms or something.
So yeah...I may not like the method, but I can't deny that the film does an exceptional job setting up this very hopeless, dark, depressing world that feels totally lost. More than just the muck, the overall setting is filled with reasons to despair. This is a world full of slavery, where human life is cheap and basically everyone seems to be entirely selfish and there are no altruistic people. Even our...hero...Don Rumata, owns slaves and frequently talks about flogging them or selling them or some such. I get the feeling we're supposed to still see him as above the rest of the world, but he does verbally and physically abuse people, so...I don't know. I guess he's...vaguely...a little bit...better than the others? I mean, he doesn't seem to meaninglessly kill people. Mostly. (A repeated point about him is that he's been in tons of duels and never kills someone--he cuts off ears. "It hurts," he notes.)
...it also features lots of shots of nudity, female and male, so thanks for that, Al.
There's a definite feeling of a world without hope, and I think that's the central concept of the film. Rumata is looking for Budakh because he's a possibility. If a thinker still exists, then maybe the planet's society will still develop one day, and maybe it won't be fully hopeless. (Why he doesn't just take on the teacher role himself since he's clearly interfering with everything else, I don't know, but bear with me.) As long as Budakh exists in his mind, Rumata has hope. It isn't until Budakh is revealed to be nothing more than an idiot that Rumata pretty much totally gives up, and in the end decides to withdraw.
It's honestly not a bad theme or story, my poking at "why don't you just teach them yourself" aside. Rumata is slowly drawn down into the muck of the world to try to find the person who could bring the rest of the world back up...only to find out that person doesn't really exist and he's exposed himself to all this horror for nothing at all. He wanted to find a way to change things, but becomes convinced change is impossible and no matter what he or anyone else might do, things would just revert back to this state. The strong will always abuse the weak, he says, and if you destroy the strong, the strongest of the weak will just take their place.
It's pretty damn depressing.
So...here's my problem with this film. It's not the viewpoint--though I don't agree with it--it's the long, long stretches where nothing relevant is happening, and the difficulty figuring out the specifics of what was happening when it did happen.
This film is simply too long. It runs for 3 whole hours. This is not, honestly, that complex of a plot. I'd honestly go out and say you could cut this down to a single hour and have a film that does exactly as strong a job showing theme, while actually being, you know, watchable. Instead, we get long...and I mean long...sequences of random people just sort of wandering at random around random areas in random amounts of muck. No, I'm kidding, the muck is never random. It's always a lot.
Mixed in with those, we have lots of scenes of Rumata just kind of walking around inside buildings with really close-in camera shots that are wonderfully unsettling but also do a terrific job of not showing me what the hell is going on. During these bits, he'll either just kind of laugh and look disturbed by things, or hold conversations with people about vague philosophical topics that seem to all come down to "this is pretty depressing, and this world's kind of screwed up, huh?"
There are some interesting moments in the mix--I did like most of Rumata's interactions with the Baron, who honestly is one of the few characters who is reasonably likable, if just because he seems to be the boisterous warrior stereotype. The idea of Rumata's legend--him evidently being a terrifying swordfighter who can easily cut through armor, and (perhaps contradictory) him never having killed anyone even though he's fought tons--is also pretty cool, and there's various points where he's utterly outnumbered and easily intimidates his way out of situations on his legend alone.
For what it's worth, I...don't think the legend's intended to be a lie. The film implies he actually is a scary fighter. We're not shown much of the actual fighting, though, so it's hard to tell.
But...like I said, when things do happen it feels very hard to tell exactly what is going on. A lot of names are thrown at us, with very little context. It's hard to tell what specific relations are or who is in some way "allied" with Rumata and who is a clear enemy and who is...trying to be an ally, or...it's really pretty tough. Mix that in with a lot of people who are in makeup to make them look sickly and decrepit, and it can often be hard to tell who is who aside from Rumata himself. I actually still have names I can't clearly match up to a character.
|There were dogs involved in this film. That's kind of sad. They deserve better.|
|And they also involved the next generation. Might as well make them suffer early, I guess?|
The swaying camera, moving to and fro and searching around scenes for anything going on, is great for setting a disturbing and uncomfortable mood...but not great for showing much clearly. I already mentioned that a lot of the time the camera's zoomed in nice and close. That, combined with the way it moves around all the time, the cramped nature of a lot of the sets, the abundance of extras and props, and the often confusing layouts, makes it pretty tough to even get a sense of location, much less track movement and figure out where people are going. I think that was the intent, but it made for a film that was very hard to watch and tough to comprehend.
|What is it with Al's birthday reviews and extended shots of people chuckling for no apparent reason?|
And, of course, there's the film's habit of cutting whenever something action-heavy is going to happen, often in really weird and disorienting ways. The Baron's death scene and the final battle in particular are crazily jarring. The Baron dies after a sequence in which he escapes from some guards, gets his sword and horse, and rides for the castle gates, while everyone screams about "where are the archers?" and the like. He gets out of the gate, and there's a cut, and then his body is shown face down on the ground riddled by arrows.
|This is not how acupuncture works!|
And the final battle? Well, the buildup to it, anyway? There's just...a ton of confusion. Rumata's land is under attack, I got that much. But it's difficult to tell what people are supposedly on his side, and what people are opposed to him. This despite the fact that the enemy appears to have an actual uniform...I think some of Rumata's men end up wearing the same helmets, or...maybe I just got mixed up. Or bored. Probably both.
In any case, the ending kind of defies belief. When Rumata kills the enemy leader he appears to be utterly surrounded by a truly massive amount of what I must assume were his foes. Rumata's legend has been built up throughout the film, sure, but remember, we never really see a fight scene with him as such, so it's really tough to gauge just what his abilities are supposed to be. It appears to be him against tens or twenties of foes, and then no battle is shown, and then we see a whole bunch of dead people around the town and Rumata still live. So I guess the idea is that he did have allies, or he's just that awesome? I don't know. And I really don't care, either.
There's one other weird thing that happens a lot in Hard to Be a God. Frequently...and I'm talking about every few seconds during most of the movie...one character or another will look directly at the camera, as though the camera represented a viewpoint of a character itself. This is clearly intentional--often the characters will actually speak to the camera as though it were a character. Sometimes it feels like the "camera" character will later step out into view and be revealed to be Rumata or one of the minor characters in the scene, but other times it isn't. It feels like the camera character changes characters frequently--we're seeing things from the viewpoints of a lot of different people--but since it isn't always revealed who it was, it contributes to the general confusion of watching the film.
|I started feeling like I was playing an FMV game or something.|
So...I can't call it a bad film. But I can call it a film I didn't like. I can call it a film I found very boring to watch. I can call it a film I found to be a slog to get through. I can call it a film I found to be extraordinarily confusing.
|Oh, and everyone is always clearing their noses, too. I mean, constantly.|
I can appreciate what was attempted here. I can understand the artistry involved. I just still don't like it.
Happy Birthday, Al.