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Animated film from Russia (2006)
Directed by Yuriy Kulakov
Reviewed by Therese Prieur
If the Anglo-Saxons bemoan about the mist surrounding the Dark Ages, wait till you meet Russians! Or rather Slavs. We only get very vague Roman and Frankish clues. And a name Samo somewhere in the first half of the 7th century.
To say that this animated movie was much waited for is an understatement. As friends of Medieval lore, we must avoid to be seen as only focused on our very Westernized fore-fathers. Russia had also its coal-black ages and Prince Vladimir (Knyaz Vladimir) is supposedly aimed at children. The answer is in the word supposedly.
Britain had Aethelbehrt d.616 AD, France Chlodoweg d.511 AD: Russia has Vladimir d.1015 AD.
And the history of the Grand Prince of Kiev. is as much full of angst, bloodshed, pagan priests, dubious family relationships as Bede and Gregory of Tours were able to report.
… and you dare to write : for children?
I do; but adding the following handle for adults too. This is not a Slav-cum-Disney story. We have a man who can get drunk, who is ready to kill his own brother and when the story ends he has yet to meet his future wife. So are you asking: why is this a movie worth a review in Medievalist.net?
Because it is a wonderful and great story. Firstly, to dare to make an animated film about the major religious shift from paganism to Christianity without making all Pagans characters unpleasant is a rare and welcomed story-line! By creating Vladimir as a very imperfect hero it is respectful of the viewer, and frankly because there are so few movies set between 449 AD and 1066 AD, it is a much needed breath of fresh air.
What’s more, some sequences are almost like Byzantine and Lindisfarne illuminated manuscripts. Especially, the Byzantium episode.
All starts when a ‘good’ Pagan priest is killed by another ambitious and evil priest, who is set to do all what he can to prevent the ‘Rus’ from becoming Christians and more so from being free from his very human interference. Add a story about children, including the son of a Pecheneg Khan. Pechengegs were from the Turkic peoples who migrated into this region. Their people and the Rus/Slavic people had quite a long history together, which was far from friendly (yet the story shows the two boys able in a way to get along).
Some typical Russian comic characters are added (the foolish bumbling soldier twins) which I must say will leave the western viewer possibly bewildered. Still, the saviour of Vladimir are a young Christian page and an Old Pagan priest/druid (the latter name might be better).
We see battles; while at it we are spared some tough moments : I let you imagine what will happen to the poor Christian females at the beginning of the movie. And yes, it is supposedly for kids. We see a Russian feasting hall as we slowly start to unfold the events. Let’s imagine this is the Russian Bayeux tapestry… because it is.
It left me with the desire to know more about this prince and his family. For the Anglo-Saxon crowd, one of his grand-sons Vladimir II will marry Harold Godwinson’s daughter Gytta of Wessex! As from my dear French friends, his grand-daughter Anna of Kiev will become Queen of France bringing the first name Philip with her (she was of the Orthodox communion before her wedding) and all the French royals up to day are her descendants.
In short a story sold as for children, but giving us a view of the uncertain days where a country moved from paganism and polytheism to montheism (a very hard sell) a hero who for all his dashingness is not a Saint (though naturally as per tradition, converted kings cannot escape canonization at one point). And more importantly, a story which respects our non-Christian forefathers.
I will add that some critics say that the movie is holding ‘racist’ views (I supposed the Pechengs). I read the characters as being betrayed by the villain; they are his pawns and they are rather honourable characters.
This was supposed to be the first of a series which never happened. If you want the next episode, I suggest you watch Prince Yaroslav. It is not because we hear seldom of Russian movies that we must ignore its gems.