Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol—nominated for an Oscar as this year’s Best Foreign Language Film—is being marketed in North America as a jolty, gory war epic à la 300 (2007), which isn’t quite accurate. The film is violent, as any recounting of Genghis Khan’s early career must be, but its commitment to stylization owes more to precedent than to contemporary video games (though it does indulge in the obnoxious recent trend of filming fights at high speeds, so that every drop of blood is discernible). Bodrov, who is Russian, seems sympathetic to the graphic inroads made by Soviet cinema: many choppy sequences echo Eisenstein or Bondarchuk; depictions of ancient ritual bring to mind those in Sergei Parajanov’s cult classic Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964).
Mongol is also like Ben-Hur (1959), for its main narrative involves the relationship between Temudgin (Genghis Khan’s birth name) and Jamukha, his friend and eventual rival. Such a tale is well worn, the basis of hundreds of samurai films in addition to Hollywood epics, but this is just Mongol’s point. There is a primitive magnificence to it—enforced by Rogier Stoffers and Sergey Trofimov’s impressive camera work, done largely on location in China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia—and also a convincing horror. Bodrov’s dependence on imagery is just right (the film, spoken entirely in Mongolian, doesn’t really need subtitles). Like a bad dream, Mongol sees history as a Yeatsian gyre, in which ignominy engenders bloodthirstiness, and strength lies in the ability of leaders to shepherd entire clans into battle. In this respect the film is a tad too soft in its depiction of Temudgin’s wife, Borte (by birth a member of the antagonistic Merkit tribe), who might be mistaken as a mere love interest or damsel in distress, not as the shrewd co-conspirator that she was. Bodrov rectifies this sentimentality near Mongol’s end, however, appropriately acknowledging how remote the film is from modern morality, and how close it is to the bone.
Mongol is now playing at the Varsity Cinema (55 Bloor St. W.).