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Taras Bulba is a film based on an historical Russian novel which is set against the backdrop of 16th Central Europe, as conflict rages between Ukrainian Cossacks and the Kingdom of Poland. The historical context may be alien to most Western viewers, but the consistent popularity of China’s historical epics proves that this hurdle can be overcome. Unfortunately, where China’s products immerse us in their beautiful cinematography, Taras Bulba offers little for us to be impressed by.
Apart from Taras himself, who is well played by the bellowing Bogdan Stupka, the characters are one-dimensional. His two sons, whose opposing personalities are central to the plot, are little more than polarised examples of a ‘good’ Cossack (violent, loyal) and a bad one (diplomatic, stoic). The romance that blossoms between the bad son and a Polish princess is potentially worthy plot material, but it falls foul of the fiercely patriotic message that the film aims to convey. The princess is little more than a giggling harpy, and her relationship with the young Cossack is dismissed as a deviation from the Cossack cause.
The problem with Taras Bulba is that it’s unsure as to what exactly this cause is. The Cossacks are portrayed as a horde of drunken savages, who are comically chauvinistic and xenophobic. Sure, we have to acknowledge that this was written in the 19th Century and the film is remaining true to the source material (blah blah blah), but seeing a Jew leering greedily over gold or listening to Taras rant about the shortcomings of women just seems a little dated, and as such is unintentionally amusing. The only reason the viewer sides with the Cossacks in this film is because they get more screen-time than the virtually anonymous enemy that is Poland.
Something genuinely enjoyable about Taras is the battle scenes, which are refreshingly devoid of CGI and rely on extras and real explosions. At a time when CGI battles are beginning to feel stale and impersonal, seeing thousands of extras slopping around on a muddy battlefield makes these scenes feel raw and gritty. The attention to detail is also impressive, and the fortresses, costumes, and bizarre Cossack rituals do well to distract the viewer from the shallow plot.
Taras Bulba is not a bad film, with director Vladimir Bortko showing a good eye for scenery and some interesting techniques in shooting the battle scenes. The problem is that the film is not absorbing enough to interest a viewer outside of Russia and Ukraine. The battle scenes and casual xenophobia and sexism will provide some light entertainment, but the lack of character development means that it’s hard to sympathise with the Cossacks, who ultimately seem to be no more than an aimless group of pissheads fighting a faceless enemy.
Best performance: Bogdan Stupka is imposing as Taras Bulba. It’s a shame that Taras is a chauvinistic bastard.
Watch this if you liked: Troy, Ogniem I Mieczem (With Fire and Sword)