I read a review or article somewhere that basically makes the case that even the well-known war films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket have nothing on Idi i Smotri, a Russian film by Elem Klimov. Having seen both of the other films, and having experienced their portrayals of the ruthlessness and horrifying nature of war, I wondered how that could be. After watching this one for myself, I get it. I had only been watching portrayals before. No other film, not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket, not All Quiet on the Western Front; nothing I’ve seen so perfectly captures the true horror and pointlessness of war. There is always a veneer, a thin layer of “Hollywood” that keeps everything on the screen fictional, as if this were a mild encouragement that yes, this is all just the product of an imagination, and it wasn’t really real. Sure, Idi i Smotri is technically fictional as well, but there is no wall, no layer, no transparent barrier that shields us from what is happening on screen. We are brought into the film, into the horror and the devastation that follows Flyora as he experiences what war is really like, not some dolled-up farce that poses for war.
Flyora is our main character, a young lad who, when we open the film, we find digging in the sand for a weapon, a rifle, of any kind, so he can go and join the front. He succeeds, and he is sent off to join the nearest regiment. From there, the film follows him as he goes through experience after experience; the film doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a relative forward motion, throwing Flyora from one encounter to the next and seeing the innocence of the lad slowly erode away. By the end, he is nothing but a shell, hollowed out by the relentless atrocity that he has been swept along with. So, why is this so effective? Because it’s a damn great film, that’s why. The camerawork, especially for being in a war film, was absolutely exquisite. Shots are carefully composed, the camera movement was fluid and intuitive; this is the work of a real artisan who knows their craft. Klimov also uses the unnerving tactic of having his characters, rather than stand stoically looking off-screen, instead stare directly into the camera, almost like an Errol Morris documentary. Their faces fill the screen, and we see directly into their souls, their expressions speaking volumes more than any lines they could ever say, in an effect not unlike La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
When this was over, I had to take a few minutes to catch a breather and collect myself. This was an unrelenting film, and a completely uninhibited one. War is a common topic in film, but as I put forth before, most war films have that air of a fictionalized story, so there’s a disconnect between us and what’s on screen. With Idi i Smotri, there is no disconnect. This picture wants to get it in your head: war is the worst, ugliest thing on this planet, and it makes one hell of a case. If you can stomach such a powerfully brutal film, this is definitely one to put on your lists to see at some point. But be careful; this isn’t one to watch when you’re in a particularly good mood, as it will surely end it. Then again, you might not want to watch it when you’re in a rather rough mood either; you might be convinced that life on this world really isn’t worth it.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10