DVD Review

Alexander Sokurov's War Documentaries

Alexander Sokurov's Spiritual Voices and Confession are produced for DVD by Ideale Audience, Paris and will be released on NTSC DVD by Facets Video in Region 1, on March 29, 2005.

Also visit the official website of Alexander Sokurov & Alexander Drunin's Sokurov information site.

Known until now mostly from shows at art museums, film festivals, and European TV channels, these two films by Alexander Sokurov are presented for the first time on DVD with English subtitles (removable). Both are 2xDVD sets.

SPIRITUAL VOICES is a documentary following the daily lives of a brigade of Russian border guards along the Tadjik/Afghani border. Originally made for television with Betacam SP cameras, it transcends the format with its remarkable discipline and expansive (328 minutes) unblinking gaze. Long takes, minimal dialogue, and painterly cinematography. Watch the short sequence of helicopter ride, for example, and just try to find a similar scene in any CGI-saturated blockbuster. The soundtrack would probably deserve an analysis of its own as it's so meticulously and delicately crafted from the natural sounds, fragments of Richard Wagner's Siegfried, and music by Toru Takemitsu.

The quality of the transfer is excellent, there are no obvious compression artifacts and it's probably safe to assume the DVD looks virtually identical to the original Betacam source (except for colour manipulation in some scenes). The artifacts of the PAL-to-NTSC conversion are negligible. There is some ghosting visible on still frames but given the non-high-resolution nature of the source, it is in fact hard to tell the conversion-induced blur from the source's inherent lack of filmlike sharpness. The conversion appears to treat all video fields separately further improving the smoothness of the result.

The only odd feature we noticed was the presence of what seem to be digitally superimposed fake "film scratches." They look like small black specks and are present throughout, including the title cards and credits. They are tiny and unobtrusive and very quickly become quite unnoticeable but their presence and their obviously artificial origin is admittedly a puzzle to this reviewer. For examples of these specks, see the chin of the soldier in the framegrab to the left (click to enlarge; the mark appears in only one of the interlaced fields in this particular frame grab).

A small DVD-ROM section includes an 8-page PDF booklet. The printed notes for the DVD are apparently not ready yet and we haven't seen them. The English subtitles are very well done and the chosen typeface is always legible.

The supplement consists of an 11-minute Sokurov short Soldier's Dream based on footage from Spiritual Voices. Additional extras would make us even happier: how about some Sokurov TV interviews?

Jan Bielawski, February 11, 2005.  end block

CONFESSION begins with a title card defining the film as a work of fiction. It was nevertheless shot using a similar technique to that of Spiritual Voices: an unhurried (210 min.) documentary video camera following the life on a Russian navy battleship at the Barents Sea. The names we hear on the soundtrack reappear later in the closing credits — these people are not actors. The reflections and diary entries of the captain form the "fiction" part of the film. The film's original title means "Duty" with the connotation of both "obligation" and "conscription." The English title seems to stress more the captain's inner monologue.

The transfer quality is the same as that of Spiritual Voices, in other words excellent considering the source was professional non-hi-def video. The picture is matted to 2:1 and labelled "widescreen" on the DVD box. Subtitles are faithful to the original language. The odd "scratches" from Spiritual Voices are absent.

The supplement section consists of a PDF booklet in the DVD-ROM section. Again, more supplemental material on Mr. Sokurov would certainly make his fans very happy!

Jan Bielawski, February 11, 2005.  end block

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