|'A synopsis of Hard To Be A God is neither easy to provide nor particularly helpful, as narrative structure, clarity and pace are clearly near the bottom of German's list of priorities'.|
Hard To Be A God is one of those films you feel has been given something of a free pass to masterpiece status by professional critics. Perhaps because it is the final feature from Russian director Aleksei German before his death in 2013, which was finished by his son (also a director, and also called Aleksei German) and his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita after being left in a state of near-completion; perhaps because its visuals are regularly breathtaking throughout its extensive running time; most probably some combination of the two. Everyday film fans, meanwhile, have generally been somewhat less convinced. The statistics speak for themselves: at the time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes has the film at a 93% "Fresh" rating, whereas IMDb calculates an average score of 6.6 out of 10 from a little over two thousands user ratings.
Perhaps the best place to canvas the divide in opinion Hard To Be A God has provoked is Letterboxd. Browsing the first few pages of the recent reviews for the film, there is roughly a fifty-fifty divide between those offering four or five star ratings and those giving scores of two, one or even half a star. Reviews occupying the middle ground are there, but appear much less regularly than those on either end of the scale. These two extremes largely sum up my feelings about German's final film; there are definitely elements with which I fell in love, at the same time as taking a strong dislike to several others.
A synopsis of Hard To Be A God is neither easy to provide nor particularly helpful, as narrative structure, clarity and pace are clearly near the bottom of German's list of priorities. Set on a planet virtually identical to our own that is technologically and culturally stuck in the Middle Ages, the film follows Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), one of a group of scientists who have travelled to the planet and who has infiltrated the kingdom of Arkanar under the guise of nobleman Don Rumata. His mission is to help society progress - without actively interfering or instigating any advancements himself - during a period where a potential Renaissance period has been prevented through the oppression and extermination of any learned or intelligent individuals.
Despite this potentially fascinating starting point, Hard To Be A God unfortunately ends up a bloated, turgid, impenetrable slog. German regularly makes the narrative frustratingly difficult to follow, whilst also unnecessarily stretching matters out over nearly three hours. Apart from Anton, the director refuses to introduce any character in anything more than a rudimentary fashion, presenting a sizeable cast in conveyor belt fashion leaving the audience bewildered as to who is important to the story. Yarmolnik as Anton is fine, but German and Karmalita's script focuses almost entirely on his Don Rumata persona, leaving the "real" Anton feeling severely undernourished in comparison.
In contrast to the bewildering nature of Hard To Be A God's story, as a work of art German's film is frequently awe-inspiring. Reminiscent of the peasant scenes from Monty Python And The Holy Grail but with the humour excised completely, the director's crafting of his medieval world is utterly comprehensive. Despite being perpetually soaked in rain, mud, blood and various other bodily fluids, German's black-and-white photography gives the regularly revolting content a curiously beautiful quality, with his masterful use of light and dark particularly astounding.
Individual opinions of Hard To Be A God are therefore likely to boil down to how much the narrative perplexity can be outweighed by the film regularly being aesthetically stunning. Unfortunately for me, it simply couldn't. Had German tightened the whole thing to around a two hour running time, there would most probably be an additional star at the end of this review. As it is, despite the obvious craftsmanship behind the film's appearance, Hard To Be A God seriously struggled to keep my attention beyond the sixty minute mark, leaving nearly two hours of exhaustingly unenjoyable cinema still to be endured.