Now Playing! Soviet-Era Epic ‘War and Peace’ Lays Siege to the Castro

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Still from Sergei Bondarchuk's 'War and Peace,' 1966.  (Courtesy of Janus Films)

If you’ve never found yourself intoning the old-fogey expression, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” here’s your big (and I mean big) chance. Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk’s gargantuan late-’60s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace, newly restored and spanning seven hours (plus breaks), commandeers the Castro on Saturday, May 25. Don’t fret that you won’t be able to finish the novel by the weekend, comrade. That’s why God gave us the movies.

In Bondarchuk’s case, God took the form of a massive budget and a magic wand courtesy of the state’s top brass. The army supplied thousands of extras, while museums were instructed to provide every artifact that the production requested. (Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim, those notoriously ambitious architects and purveyors of historical events—and, occasionally, historical accuracy—onscreen, are still spinning with envy in their graves at the resources granted to Bondarchuk.)

Still from Sergei Bondarchuk's 'War and Peace,' 1966.
Still from Sergei Bondarchuk's 'War and Peace,' 1966. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

Over the course of four-plus years, the director deployed his riches with an imagination that matched his power. Although a veteran actor (he cast himself as Pierre), Bondarchuk had helmed only one feature before he was given the commission in 1961 to make War and Peace. Yet he refused to play it safe, using every cinematic technique, including eye-of-God helicopter shots, split-screens and handheld camerawork, that thrust the viewer into the maelstrom of war—and the desires and confusion of the heart.

Size has always mattered when it comes to epics, and no movie proves the point better than the four-part War and Peace. Criterion is readying a DVD for June release, but whose TV comes anywhere close to the Castro screen? In this case, bigger is better.

BAMPFA has a slightly smaller screen, but its encore presentation of War and Peace in early June has a certain attraction. If the marathon experience at the Castro isn’t your cup of vodka-laced tea, the Berkeley venue lets you partake of Bondarchuk’s four-part feast across two (or even three or four) days.