Russian writer-director Alexander Mitta crams a lot into his fantastical biopic Chagall-Malevich, including the early career of painter Marc Chagall (Leonid Bichevin), the role of artists in the Russian Revolution, an aesthetic rivalry with minimalist Kazimir Malevich (Anatoly Bely), Jewish life under Soviet rule, an inspiring marriage to Chagall’s beloved Bella (Kristina Schneidermann), and the effective brutality of post-czarist leadership.
The result is an ambitious jumble of competing story lines that never gels into a cohesive portrait. Despite equal billing with the fiery, charismatic Malevich, Chagall receives the bulk of Mitta’s (Lost in Siberia) focus, the director depicting him as an optimistic naïf trying to create an artistic utopia in Vitebsk (now in Belarus). Mitta infuses the gloom of early Soviet-era famine and political purges with Chagall’s sunny outlook and re-creates his now famous paintings on screen, including Marc and Bella floating above their hometown.
He also takes a broad-brush approach to characterization, especially with lovesick poet turned brutish commissar Naum (Semyon Shkalikov), central to the film’s most maudlin scenes. There’s a great deal of rhetoric about revolution and radical art, but Chagall-Malevich is staid and conventional. Bella’s a servile muse, with a disheartening speech about one spouse staying grounded so that the other can fly.
Mitta’s Chagall is safely secular: Any conflict he faced with his Hasidic Jewish family is transposed onto a protégé, Lyova (Yakov Levda), whose rabbi father expresses love and disapproval. While everyone around him suffers for their beliefs, Marc Chagall’s pure love of art keeps him blissfully above it all.