But in his spare 2006 documentary, Elegy of Life: Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya., arriving this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Sokurov sheds artsy conceit in favor of a fairly straightforward and engaging portrayal of one of classical music’s most celebrated couples. The standard approach works fine for such magnetic personalities—late, great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the headstrong soprano Galina Vishnevskaya—but Sokurov sneaks in a few strained tributes to the sanctity of classical music and its purveyors. At moments, it feels like propaganda.
There’s something to be said for restoring pride to a Europe and Russia so demoralized by the Soviets, but it’s a little unsettling to hear Sokurov’s monotone voice-over echoing jingoist spiels of World War II: “Europe. Europeans. Civilization is still being held together by your passionate attachment to the classics.” In another scene, as the camera pans over the opulent Musikverein hall in Vienna, Sokurov observes, “Great music, great musicians, great public.” What would the European response be to a similar attitude in an American documentary on one of our greats?
The film centers around the couple’s 2005 golden-anniversary dinner, which included several European political notables: Boris Yeltsin, Queen Sofía of Spain, Bernadette Chirac, etc. Musical royalty such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Seiji Ozawa appear as well, but the doc shines most when it goes beyond glittering festivities and moves into the living room. Sokurov’s pointed questioning reawakens Vishnevskaya to the horrible experience of losing her sick week-old child more than 60 years ago. In the following scene, the camera settles on her animated face as she finds escape by taking in an opera. The power of this music is found in the quiet emotions, not the galas.
Throughout, there’s the solemn realization that this generation of musicians, who collaborated with greats like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, is dwindling. In an old black-and-white clip, Shostakovich praises the cellist as a man who possessed perfect mastery of his instrument; Vishnevskaya proudly recalls how the composer dedicated a work to her. This is our last link to those musicians who predated honorific, interrogating documentary films.
Slava, as his friends called him, warmly translates to the screen as a jovial grandpa. Yet his candid cynicism toward Bach’s religious inspiration reminds us he’s not your average Guideposts-subscribing geriatric. Exiled for housing the late, controversial writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich was a real maverick who never compromised his beliefs even when it meant undermining the Kremlin. He points to the nationality on his passport: It reads “unspecified.” Considering Sukorov’s work in Russian Ark, Elegy is surprisingly uncinematic—a film whose importance is drawn solely from its subject, despite the director’s provincial outlook.