A review requested by David N, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

In the general fashion of such things, when Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark erupted into the world at the 2002 Cannes International Film Festival, it was greeted by the majority of English-language critics as though it was the first statement of a bold new voice, instead of the latest film in a career that had been humming along for literally decades at that point. And for the most part, those critics haven't really circled back to see what they missed out on, so the 20th Century portion of the director's voluminous output remains, for the most part, unexplored territory to the great mass of American cinephilia.

I bring this up for two reasons. One is to point out that Sokurov's 1988 Days of Eclipse, despite being one of his most highly-regarded early works, lacks for all that much information in English, and this puts me at a disadvantage; it is film that positively yearns for as much explanatory background information context as can be scrounged up, and my scrounging has somewhat let me down. The second is reason is that I'd like to bemoan how little attention the film has received, because even with being occasionally baffled by what exactly it's doing, and how, and to what end, I found Days of Eclipse to be an uncommonly stimulating movie, gloriously overstuffed with ideas, both philosophical and aesthetic, and worthy of a much broader audience than it has to date enjoyed in the United States. Minimally, an actual home video release of any sort might be a nice step.

The film was adapted by screenwriters Yuri Arabov and Pyotr Kadochnikov from the 1977 novel Definitely Maybe (AKA A Billion Years Before the End of the World) by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, though I am led to believe it has been adopted with an uncommonly free hand. It centers upon Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishov), a physician in the USSR during its steady march to decay and dissolution, who has been sent at the behest of the government from the big Russian city Gorky to Turkmenistan (then one of the Soviet republics), to research and provide care for the locals. He succeeds at neither of these tasks, at least not in any recognisable way. Truth be told, his research goals aren't ever exactly clear, and his methods even less so (step 2: import a lobster preserved in a block of gelatin). Nor would I want to be put in the position of having to say what "happens" in Days of Eclipse and be confident that I got it right: Malyanov peers at the town surrounding him, attempts some half-hearted connections with the locals, and only ever ends up spending much time with Vecherovsky (Eskender Umaraov), the son of Crimean Tatars who were driven out of Russia during one of Stalin's purges, and now wanders as aimlessly as Malyanov himself. There's also a little boy (Sergei Krylov), whose parents are dead, or incapacitated, or maybe he just ran away. He's not telling; all he does is to stare with horribly precocious solemnity and speak words that flicker with unpleasant profundities.

I frankly don't trust my ability to unpack all of this, but let us at least for the moment put the story and scenario on hold. The first thing you encounter in Days of Eclipse isn't anything to do with that anyway. What you first encounter is sound - noise, almost, but noise with a purpose, carefully edited and shaped to create a whirlwind of things that all make sense in and of themselves, but become crazier and more inchoate as they're added. Sokurov's soundscape for the film is a mixture of God knows how many disparate elements: Western liturgical music and symphonies, pieces of radio shows or news reports (or maybe both), snippets from Hollywood junk - there's a little snatch of Disney in there towards the end - and plenty of what I gather to be traditional Turkic songs. Underneath this audio, for the first several minutes of the film, Sokurov and his crew (of whom the key members in this capacity would be editor Leda Semyonova and cinematographer Sergei Yurizditsky) lay out what looks for all the world like documentary footage of the same community where the film takes place, or other communities elsewhere in Turkmenistan like it. There is no sense of a narrative building, not even the sense of a place being described; there is, instead, a plunge into a very particular mood, combining a sense of desolation and cautious despair with the generally anarchic but anyways clearly "inappropriate" mixture of international and multicultural audio cues.

The film is nothing so coarse as a didactic statement about Soviet attempts to dominate irreconcilable cultures with a one-size-fits-all approach (and likely couldn't be, even in 1988), but that's the theme that burbles up anyway. Malyanov is fundamentally out of place, not least because of Ananishov's disorientingly good looks, freshly-scrubbed with a model's feathered hair (it was the '80s) and thick lips, standing out like a space alien in the run-down world of ancient buildings housing ragged people missing teeth and any form of hygiene (I shall run the risk of being utterly boring in my limited choice of touchstones, but it reminds me irresistibly of another Strugatsky adaptation, 2013's Hard to Be a God, where the analogues for Soviet busybodies are actually space aliens, though not ones who remain terribly clean or attractive). Even the way that Sokurov and Yurizditsky place Ananishov in the frame often stresses his not-fitting into the world: the last time we see him, his head is floating near the bottom of the image with an empty sky and desolate backdrop behind him. He's clearly not supposed to be there, cutting against the mise en scène with neither malice nor benevolence, but interrupting it nonetheless. And the suffocating malaise that hangs around every bit of Ananishov's performance in the slow-moving two and a quarter hours of Days of Eclipse do not leave us with the sense that he particularly wants to be there.

So it is, anyway, with the music jarring and fighting against the imagery and plot, promising what seems like it should be a discernible meaning if only we can pull apart every last ingredient in the aural polyglot, but certainly never starts to make sense. This specific and purposeful lack of clarity is another one of the film's main strategies: in the narrative we have the vagueness of Malyanov's tasks and the outright magical realism of the little boy who appears like some kind of ambivalent angel on the doorstep. In the visuals, we have the film's seemingly random shifts from monochrome to color and back again. After the barrage of audio, that's actually the first thing I noticed about the movie: how much of it is shot in rich sepia tones, creating a sense of fairy tale Neverwhen and Neverwhere, like a bedtime story told by a suicidal, possibly drunk Soviet functionary. And then, how it shifts - sometimes right in the midst of a long take - to a watery color, typical of lousy '80s film stock, building a much more stable sense of a very real place at a very real time, and that a particularly awful time indeed. But whatever the two color palettes connote to different viewers, there's no scheme - the image varies from point to point without explaining its rules.

In short, what Days of Eclipse is, is a visceral expression of things being utterly uncomfortable wrong, with a box around them that fails to give them any form or meaning even though it's "supposed to". Maybe this is a comment on the Russian experience as an interloper in the very lands they thought they'd conquered; maybe it's a comment on the Turkic (or any ethnic group, really) experience of being imposed upon from above and forced to cobble together a new identity formed out of dying traditions and impossible new forms. It is a great, violently formalist portrayal of being trapped in a world not of your choosing, unable to do anything to make that world better, and it hits tremendously hard despite being incredibly difficult to parse in many ways - indeed, that difficulty is one of its main strengths.