The main title of this movie could be referring to two different people. The first would be Fyodor Ivanovich Aniskin, the avuncular hero of a banal 1969 Soviet film, played by the frequently avuncular actor Mikhail Zharov. Consulting on a case in which a musician, new to his hamlet, complains of a purloined accordion, Aniskin notes that the man does not yet understand the values of their small town.
The other “village detective” might be Bill Morrison himself. For Morrison, who is the producer, director and editor of this strangely intoxicating film, is a cinematic investigator of the first stripe. The values of his own corner of film revival place as much emphasis on ruin as on restoration. His astonishing 2017 feature, “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” unearthed an uncanny swatch of buried film history from the end of the line of the Klondike Gold Rush. Other films, like “Decasia” (2002), are audiovisual tone poems reveling in the beautiful rot of old reels in varying states of disrepair.
Like “Frozen Time,” “The Village Detective” tells the story of a find. After a preface in which two films featuring Zharov, one from the 1930s and another from the early 1970s, conduct a kind of dialogue with each other, Morrison tells, in onscreen titles, of a 2016 email from a friend, the Icelandic musician and composer Johann Johannsson.
On a trip home, Johannsson heard of an Icelandic lobster trawler catching a forgotten film canister in its net. We learn that the canister was picked up on the border of the tectonic plates that hold North America and Europe — the West abutting the East, so to speak. Underneath these plates is molten lava; the hydrogen sulfide emanating from that lava is a very high-quality preservative. Film preservationists in Iceland were practically salivating over the possibilities.
What was found, and what we see, in mesmeric images transferred from celluloid that was steeped in mud, was the Soviet movie from 1969, “Derevensky Detektiv,” savaged by critics but a huge popular hit — so much so that Zharov continued to play Aniskin in sequels for the last decade of his career. He died in 1981 at the age of 82.
As Morrison demonstrates through exhaustively selected clips, the actor’s story is also a, if not the, story of Soviet cinema. His film debut, as an extra, was in 1915, in a pre-Soviet film about Ivan the Terrible. He appeared in movies by important Soviet directors such as Boris Barnet and V.I. Pudovkin — and by many less important filmmakers. As he grew a bit stout in his thirties, he began to resemble the players of friendly-but-hapless supporting roles in American studio films. He’s got a touch of Alan Hale Sr., you could say.
He did some of his best work in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible, Part II,” which got its director in hot water with Stalin. And when Zharov’s in-laws were imprisoned as part of the so-called “doctors’ plot” to assassinate Stalin (no such plot existed; the whole affair was an antisemitic fraud), Zharov was ostracized for not denouncing them.
Morrison weaves this history into a treatment of Zharov’s 1969 star turn that renders its stodgy corniness poetic. (The accordion-centered score, by David Lang, is essential to this near-alchemical process.) The movie ends on a droll semi-cosmic joke that one expects its dedicatee, Johannsson, who died in 2018, might have appreciated.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes. In English, with some Russian and Icelandic, subtitled. In theaters.
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