Monday, October 1, 2012

Aleksandar Petrović | The Master and Margaret

satan in moscow
by Douglas Messerli

Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani, Aleksandar Petrović, and Roman Wingarten (writers, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov), Aleksandar Petrović (director) The Master and Margaret / 1972

When I first received this film on Netflix, I was somewhat peeved by the Anglicizing of the film’s title. The Russian novel, which I had read decades earlier, was translated as The Master and Margarita; the Serbo-Croatian title of Petrović’s Yugoslav production was Maestro i Margarita, and the Italian title, the language in which the cinema was filmed, read Il maestro e Margherita. Why, therefore, did we have to describe the English-language version as Margaret? But after seeing the film, and realizing that there have been some dozen other adaptations of Bulgakov’s great fiction, I now feel it is quite appropriate to call this, only tangentially related version, by its American-sounding monniker.

     Unlike Bulgakov’s mythological and fantasy-like adventure with a sometimes metaphysical landscape, while keeping the characters of Woland (Satan) (Alain Cuny) and his two associates Azazello (Pavle Vuisić) and Abadonna, along with black cat Behemoth, the director of The Master and Margaret removes most of the supernatural events in order to create a tighter satire of Soviet bureaucracy. The Master’s (Nikolaj Afansijevic Maksudoy, played by Ugo Tognazzi) great historical novel on Pontius Pilate is transformed into a play in Petrović’s version, a rehearsal of which the movie begins, the Master in attendance. After a few lines, particularly those describing the nature of “truth,” the theater director and a spy for the Union of Proletarian Writers protest, calling up the Head of Literature to report the Master’s infractions. Little do they know that the head office has already been infiltrated with Woland, and by the time the true head, Berlioz (Fabijan Sovagovic) gets wind of the Master’s “political” infusions into his work, things have gone too far. Offered a trip to Yalta for his health so that they can create a reason for the play’s cancellation, Maksudov refuses. There is no solution but to hold a trial, at which speak jealous authors and government lackeys, accusing the Master of having gone out of bounds. It is not long until he finds that critics, not having even witnessed his play, have denounced it. His regular table at a nearby café has been given over to others, and even his home is taken away. Worse, he is taken away to a small “clinic,” where he is put into a strait-jacket for his “paranoid” behavior.

      Add to this the Master’s recent acquaintance with a beautiful woman, Margaret Nikolajevna (Mimsy Farmer), who seems only to ready to give herself up to the Master, and who admits upon her second visit his apartment, that she has been “stalking” him for some time because of his troubled appearance, and that she is the wife of the Chief of Police, and the viewers themselves become a bit paranoid. Is she also spying of the Master—or, as we later see her in the company of Woland—in league with the devil himself.

      Woland, meanwhile, turns the tables on some of the bureaucratic figures, sending the Secretary of the Union of Proletariat Writers to Yalta in the midst of a cold rainstorm and stripping him of his clothing: he is doomed to catch a cold. Another of the Master’s  enemies Korovjev, is beheaded when he is hit by a tram.

The master suddenly finds that the restraints of his strait-jacket are loosened, the door his cubicle is open and so, too, is the door of the “clinic.” He is taken to what appears will be a performance of his play.

      But at a prelude to the play has been added, with Woland and his friends creating a show of wizardry in which Margaret models Western clothing that miraculously falls from the ceiling the awaiting crowd below, who delight in the sudden shower of new dresses, shirts, blouses, coats and other garments, which they greedily sweep up. But when they attempt to leave the theater, many of the theater-goers suddenly discover themselves naked, and are forced to hurry into the street to find taxis that can hide them from further public exposure.

      In the last scenes we see the Master lying upon his “clinic” bed, his eyes being closed, and a shroud being laid over his head. In short, neither the great artist no the hackneyed creators are saved. In a society controlled by such evil, all creative acts end in destruction.

      Although this work has little of the majestic sweep of the original, determined to focus, instead on a more naturalistic satiric aspect of Bulgakov’s work, Petrović’s film functions as a frightful statement of what happens when the truth no longer can be spoken. This film was the Yugoslav entry for the Best Foreign Language Film of the 45th Academy Awards, but was not selected as a nominee.

Los Angeles, October 1, 2012

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