Aleksandr Ptushko has been hailed as the Russian Walt Disney, or at least the Mosfilm Ray Harryhausen, but the Ukrainian filmmaker (1900-1973) really worked in a separate realm of his own — just as the classic fantasy films of the Soviet era exist in their own special sphere, in the vast ocean of world cinema but not necessarily of it. No one does fantastic like the Russians. In the best Russian-produced fantasies and horror films, and particularly in Ptushko’s full-color 1972 adventure Ruslan and Ludmila, the lighting, the sets, the cinematography, the costumes, and most especially the actors’ faces conspire to cast a spell of luxurious, dreamy unrealism that will remain with you for hours, even days, after you leave the theater.
Adapted by Ptushko from a rather patriotic poem by Aleksandr Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila at first glance seems to be a routine fairy tale: a brave knight, a fair princess, an evil plot by a wicked sorcerer, a cast of witches and wizards, furious swordplay, and ultimate redemption. And it certainly works as a change-of-pace children’s matinee. But writer-animator-special-effects tsar Ptushko takes care to populate the royal courts and shadowy forests with an army of vivid grotesques much more enchanting than the eponymous lovers.
The heroic warrior prince Ruslan (played without a trace of irony by Valeri Kosinets, standing in for replaced actor Oleg Vidov) is the proud owner of the most artificial face in Kiev, a strangely made-up, plastic-looking visage that rarely deviates from the iconic. His beloved, the blandly blond Ludmila (Natalya Petrova), delicate daughter of Prince Vladimir, is an uncomplicated rich girl fond of staring into the middle distance when she’s lonely, which is often. Ptushko repeatedly examines their expressions in close-up, as if searching for meaning. The exteriors look to be authentic medieval fortresses, seething with agitated serfs.
Almost everyone covets the beautiful Ludmila — the Pecheneg Khan and his son (personifications of the Eastern menace), the requisite scheming boyars, and a bulbous, jolly, wine-loving oaf named Farlaf — so it’s no surprise that Ludmila is snatched away from Ruslan’s arms, right through the window of her bridal chamber, before the marriage can be consummated. Ruslan and his rivals immediately mount a rescue operation. And that’s when Ptushko’s magic show goes into high gear.
Ludmila’s kidnapper turns out to be Chernomor (Vladimir Fyodorov), a diminutive but powerful sorcerer who lives in a hollowed-out mountain equipped with huge, glowing magic crystals and staffed by guards with faces painted like Balinese masks. Chernomor’s power derives from his beard — it’s twenty meters long and is carried by his servants wherever he goes. Inside her new ice palace Ludmila is more bored than before, despite the continuous light shows and flying feasts that follow her whether she’s hungry or not. Her one delight is a magic turban that renders her invisible.
Chernomor is helped in his villainous endeavors by Naina the witch (Mariya Kapnist-Serko), who tries to befuddle Ruslan and the suitors with seductive water nymphs, a Bengal tiger, a spear that turns into a snake, and other tricks. As in Viy, the marvelous 1967 story of a witch’s wake to which Ptushko contributed special effects and screenplay writing, Ruslan’s quest is staged and lit in that uniquely Russian way — obviously much studied by such filmmakers as Jeunet & Caro and the Wachowski Bros. — that achieves expensive-looking eeriness on a modest budget, with strategic lighting and large casts of weird extras instead of more polished special effects. Tikhon Khrennikov’s music score and the balletic tumbling of the extras also add to the mood, along with the Eastern European fondness for tales within a tale.
It would have been interesting to see what Ptushko could have achieved if he’d had CGI. As it is, his effects, especially the back-projection flying scenes and his unique style of stop-motion animation, seem all the more disorienting to audiences accustomed to slick 21st-century shape-shifting. He makes up for his necessary technical shortcomings with pure visual imagination, impossible to fake at any price.
Ruslan and Ludmila screens one night only, Sunday, August 19, at 6:00 p.m., at the Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s part of the PFA’s ongoing series, “From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey through Russian Fantastik Cinema,” presented by a consortium of orgs including Seagull Films, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the American Cinematheque. Following it in the series are films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexei Fedorchenko, Karen Shakhnazarov, and Richard Viktorov.