Some Russian emigres, like Stravinsky, prided themselves on their cosmopolitanism, as if they could somehow erase or transcend their Russian roots. The late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Despite having been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled for harboring Solzhenitsyn, he remained proudly Russian - deep in his bones - until his death in April of last year at the age of 80.
Does it follow that a Russian filmmaker would be best suited to capturing the essence of this great 20th-century musician, and his almost equally legendary wife, the strong-willed diva Galina Vishnevskaya? Judging by the evidence of the feature-length documentary "Elegy of Life: Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya" opening today at the Museum of Fine Arts, the answer is both yes and no.
Director Alexandr Sokurov conveys an intuitive grasp of how profoundly connected his subjects are to the modern history of his country, its grand hopes and sorrows. He not only documents his subjects but philosophizes with them in a deeply Russian way suggesting the intimacy of a fellow traveler through difficult times. But for all of their common cultural tropes, Sokurov approaches the musical work of this extraordinary duo with the distance of an outsider, favoring breathless romantic mystification over clarity and attention to detail, whether musical, political, or even historical. Despite the film's brooding air of authenticity, it ultimately illuminates much less than one would hope.
Footage from the couple's 50th wedding anniversary gala is the oddly chosen connecting tissue; the one-on-one interviews are much stronger. Sokurov does a good job drawing out the imperious Vishnevskaya, whom he likens plausibly to a czarina. She grippingly recalls the death of her infant son 60 years earlier, and, later in the film, the joy she experienced performing on the opera stage, the one place where she could find true freedom in a repressive society.
In the interviews with Rostropovich, his youthful irrepressibility comes through with full force, and I will not soon forget the image of him gleefully cranking a barrel-organ given to him by the queen of Spain. But too often, the cellist is allowed to fall back on the default one-liners he used to pull out whenever interviewed, about this or that composer being a complete genius. He is sincere in these comments, but they are not enough. Rostropovich actually had very close and richly textured relationships with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten, and when pressed, he could tell remarkable stories about his years of bringing their music into the world. None of that is here. Devoted fans will appreciate the general mood and the tantalizing archival footage, but overall, "Elegy of Life" is not the definitive documentary they've been waiting for.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.