Ruslan and Ludmila (1972)
Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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Following the celebration of her marriage to Ruslan, the handsome conqueror of the Pechenegs, Ludmila, a beautiful princess living in Medieval Russia, is magically abducted. Angered that Ruslan had not protected his new wife, Ludmila's father promises to give his daughter in marriage to any man who can rescue her. Three of the woman's former suitors, along with Ruslan, then set out to find her and return her to her father. As he subsequently journeys through the wilderness on this quest, Ruslan learns that his beloved has been kidnapped by a sorcerous dwarf, Chernomor, and that she is being held prisoner in the villain's mountaintop castle.

Aleksandr Ptushko's Ruslan and Ludmila, while deeply flawed, is so successful in bringing to life some enchanted, mythic world that it is able to evoke poignant feelings of both wonder and heroism. It is, as a result, a true delight to watch.

The tale the director tells is generally well crafted and is enlivened with bloody battles, magical incidents, and fascinating details. At various points in the movie, Ruslan thus slaughters his enemies by the thousands, rides through eery, numinous forests, approaches the woodland hermitage of a good wizard, battles Chernomor while clinging to the dwarf's beard as the magician flies through the skies, and more. All these incidents are so captivating and so marvellous that the viewer is sure to be caught up in Ruslan's bravery, his rivals' villainy, and Ludmila's often feisty resistance to her captor.

These diverse adventures are, moreover, brimming with a potent folkloric feel that endows them with the immortality of legends. Rather than simply injecting weird happenings into the ordinary world, Ptushko has conjured up a liminal realm, where events are structured according to the logic of myths, where characters speak in verse, and where impossible feats and magic pervade every happening.

What is more, Ruslan and Ludmila is as intoxicating visually as it is narratively. Ptushko has crafted an often beautiful film whose bewitching images are suffused with such an otherworldliness that by themselves they are able to transport the viewer from the world in which he lives his daily life to the mythic land that exists only in the images on the screen before him. With its artificial forests of gnarled trees and gardens of coral or crystal, its fantastic, luminous palaces and dark caverns supported by chained giants, as well as its various other wondrous places, the movie brings to life a fabulous vision that is certain to mesmerize the viewer.

Fortunately, the various beings who inhabit this world are as captivating as it is. Ptushko thus presents the moviegoer with a dwarf wizard with a flowing white beard many times longer than the whole of his body, as well as with hideous, green faced water spirits, the talking stone head of a giant, fierce demonic guards, seductive maidens inhabiting an enchanted castle, and so on and so on. There is hardly a character who appears in the movie who is not genuinely enthralling.

Admittedly, however, despite Ruslan and Ludmila's numerous and considerable virtues, there are times when the director errs in his judgment. At several points, he includes comic elements that are so juvenile that they are actually embarrassing. When, for example, one of Ludmila's suitors is confronted by a witch, he and his new lover are shown to tremble in such an exaggerated way that even a five year old viewer would probably find the sequence puerile. Elsewhere, Ptushko has inserted scenes that are so poorly conceived that they are sure to rouse the moviegoer from his immersion in the film. In one such sequence, in which he depicts a witch's sabbath, the director has made use of such silly dancing and such shoddy costumes that the scene is just pathetic.

Whatever its shortcomings, which do significantly detract from its enjoyableness, Ruslan and Ludmila is imbued with so much magic that it is one of the most entrancing films I have ever encountered. It really is a wondrous, delightful pleasure.

Review by Keith Allen

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