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Haunting Imagery

Tony Palmer tells the story of Shostakovich -
reviewed by

'... a landmark among 20th century cinema documents.'

Testimony: Tony Palmer's film about Shostakovich, starring Ben Kingsley. © 2005 Digital Classics

Few, if any, musical (DVD) biopics are the equal of those from English director Tony Palmer -- with an arsenal of informed screenplay, virtuoso camera-work, tightrope editing, life-affirming music and powerful character acting his unforgettable, deeply unsettling two-and-a-half hour summation of Shostakovich's adult life and work makes for viewing of true gravitas, spectacular symbolism and haunting imagery.

David Rudkin's text, especially the musings of Shostakovich, are heavy with irony; an irony born of the 74-year repressive Soviet (USSR) experiment -- the light which failed.

The DVD opens with the 1975 State Funeral and Shostakovich's 'voice over' observations -- 'I am dead, how else should I be smiling?' And of the assembled appartchiks -- 'Look the ravens are here' [watch and listen -- chapter 1, 0:40-1:44].

Shostakovich's state funeral in 1975. Screenshot © 1987 Isolde Films
Shostakovich's state funeral in 1975. Screenshot © 1987 Isolde Films

Palmer sums the documentary up thus -- 'Testimony bears witness to an unconquerable human spirit. The story of Dmitry Shostakovich, great Russian patriot and musician, confronts us all by its heroism, its courage and its dignity. The most decorated Soviet civilian ever, the only composer to appear on the front cover of Time magazine, Shostakovich lived through Stalin's terror while most, if not all, of his friends were shot. His music is an eloquent and passionate description of his times; but it is his life, with its drama and its bravery, which remains his true testimony.'

At the same time Stalin's crash programs of industrialisation and collectivization in the 1930s, along with his ongoing campaigns of political repression, are estimated to have cost the lives of millions of people.

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Copyright © 26 August 2007 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


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