My soul finds comfort here.
Documentarian Bill Morrison looks to tell a story through damaged celluloid once more courtesy of four Russian film reels found by a trawler twenty miles off the coast of Iceland at the convergence of two tectonic plates. He didn’t know what he was getting into when emailed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (his friend) in 2016—only that a new discovery awaited. That it was more or less a bust considering the footage was from a well-known, middling comedy from 1969 still airing on Russian television today rather than a lost print would have put a stop to most people’s intrigue. Morrison instead saw it as a challenge to find purpose beyond its own aesthetic decomposition. He saw an entry point towards learning about Mikhail Zharov‘s prolific career.
Unlike Dawson City: Frozen Time and its wealth of material unearthed from permafrost, The Village Detective: a song cycle only possesses about thirty minutes as a jumping off point. The rest of the runtime must therefore be filled by footage from other films as well as a couple interviews with the man who readied the discovery for scanning in Iceland and a historian in Russia who was able to provide context on the work of its lead actor. As such, the rusted and warped scenes aren’t given any real value above the rest. They’re a few moments amongst others as we travel from a fifteen-year-old Zharov acting in his first movie to the character of Aniskin that he would ultimately embrace in his seventies through multiple made-for-TV sequels.
The question posited is thus whether The Village Detective (that character’s first appearance and the film found in Iceland) is any less important than Zharov’s others. We’re talking about an actor that’s said to have been as big in his homeland as Humphrey Bogart was in the United States. He holds the distinction of being the first person to ever sing in Russian on film (Morrison does well to play the clip), acted in the Ivan the Terrible movies (Joseph Stalin loved the first and banned the second), and was virtually blacklisted when his wife’s parents were arrested as political prisoners. Someone should be writing a biopic about the guy and yet here we are watching him in his twilight years, attempting to solve a stolen accordion’s whereabouts.
That little plot point comes up a lot during the film as the instrument was involved in a couple of Zharov’s productions. Pair its appearance with the actor at varying stages of his career alongside a score composed specifically for it by David Lang (it’s surely an acquired taste) and Morrison’s ode to Zharov can’t help but feel somewhat manufactured in its delivery. He could have created a film about the reels themselves by researching how they may have come to be in the Atlantic Ocean (a reason is hypothesized). Or maybe one about films found by trawlers in general. Because he decided on Zharov, Morrison then looked to make a connection between this film and his career both thematically and sensorially. And that’s exactly what he did.
It simultaneously exists as biography and visual poem without necessarily having enough content to do either full justice. That he’s able to marry what he does have into a cohesive whole worthy of your time is therefore a laudable feat even if the appeal proves much less crucial than that of Dawson City. Rather than an ingenious way to deliver a historical account on a place and an era, the discovery becomes one equal piece of a puzzle that honestly never truly even tries to pretend it’s something special. This might be intentional too—finding beauty in the mundane—but I’m not certain it warrants a feature film that does more to make us want to delve deeper into Zharov’s work than remember it as the reason why.
Think of it then as a snapshot montage of a man cinephiles outside of Russia probably don’t know with some gorgeously gnarly frames showcasing his indelible mark on the medium despite that international anonymity. You can read it as an adventure wherein the reels sought to give Zharov the recognition he deserved by traveling thousands of miles west in order for America to finally take note. It was an arduous journey, and not every reel survived, but they possessed enough to ignite Morrison’s curiosity into traveling thousands of miles himself to edit together a clip show worthy of a legend of stage and screen. The Village Detective: a song cycle is thus an appetizer for an extensive body of work it leaves you to seek out for yourself.