Writer and Director: Vladimer Barskyi
Based on the Russian novel, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, Bela reframes the story of Pechorin, a Russian officer who has recently been demobbed. Finding himself in North Caucasus, Pechorin, charmed with good looks and charisma, eyes his next adventure. On attending a local wedding, he is smitten by the bride’s sister, Bela. In a plan that covers no-one with glory, he promises a horse to a boy, Amazat, if he helps Pechorin to capture Bela.
Lermontov’s hero, and the title is heavily ironic, is not your average dashing officer. Nihilistic, and obsessed with the idea of fatalism, look him up and the term ‘sociopath’ frequently appears. The predecessor of Buchner’s Woyzeck or Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, Pechorin repels and seduces in equal measure.
Shown as part of the London Georgian Film Festival, Bela is the second film in a trilogy made by director Vladimer Barskyi, and this focus on the relationship between Pechorin and Bela is at the centre of Lermontov’s novel. It’s true that the novelist’s treatment of his heroine isn’t going to pass any Bechdel test (the image of a traumatised Bela bound and slumped over a horse, being delivered to Pechorin, is hard to stomach) but Barskyi’s unflinching gaze acknowledges that this is the template for later cinematic heroines. Lermontov was certainly influenced by Pushkin’s work, but in turn, A Hero of Our Time can be traced through to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It’s bleak, but it’s consistent.
The film, released in 1927, also marks an interesting point in cinematic history. Bela is a film that couldn’t have been made much earlier, as Lermontov’s novel is a complex, story-within-a-story framework. We bounce from the present to the past: Barskyi uses flashbacks to denote when we are latching onto another narrative thread. The film impressively keeps up with the novel, with sign-posting that has evolved with its audience. Moving away from the studio, a great deal of Bela is filmed on location. Barskyi makes the most of the Georgian landscape. The players, even on horseback, are specks against the mountain range. This creates a sense of scale, perfect for a film that switches from fast-paced action to interiors in the blink of an eye.
The performances, by and large, remind us that we are watching a film nearly 100 years old. Tina Machavariani as Bela, deploys the exaggerated gestures and wide eyes we associate with the acting style of this era. The real surprise is Nikolai Prozorovsky. Playing the disaffected ‘hero’, his acting is naturalistic and introspective; a very contemporary take on the 19th century character. Prozorovsky clearly did his homework: his Pechorin is virtually indistinguishable from the original. His acting (subtle, understated) takes into account what the camera sees; he delivers just enough. Smaller gestures, but more effective, this successful, early performance is a real hidden gem. This festival offers the chance to see films not often screened in the UK, and Bela – not perfect, but never boring – is well worth your time.
Bela is screening at the London Georgian Film Festival from 28 September – 3 October.