The Rider Named Death

A stunning re-creation of turn-of-the-19th-century Moscow is the centerpiece of director Karen Shakhnazarov's adaptation of The Pale Horse, the 1909 novel by notorious revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov, who wrote several pseudonymous books based on his own exploits. The film, however, is much more than an exercise in art direction: Released as Muscovites...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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A stunning re-creation of turn-of-the-19th-century Moscow is the centerpiece of director Karen Shakhnazarov's adaptation of The Pale Horse, the 1909 novel by notorious revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov, who wrote several pseudonymous books based on his own exploits. The film, however, is much more than an exercise in art direction: Released as Muscovites are again plagued by politically motivated bombings, Shakhnazarov's film paints a grim, decidedly unromantic picture of terrorism as the dead-end refuge of the sociopathic and the tragically misguided, and resounds with powerful contemporary relevance. Moscow, 1904: The ferociously militant, anti-Tsarist Socialist Revolutionary Party has already perpetrated a string of successful assassinations targeting Imperial officials, but Georges (Andrei Panin) and his cell are carefully planning one of the most sensational yet: the murder of Moscow's governor general, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich (Vasiliy Zotov). After a failed attempt to bomb the Grand Duke's carriage outside his palace sends the conspirators into hiding, Georges returns to Moscow. Posing as a rich foreigner and using a nondescript house as his base of operations, he reassembles his clandestine coterie: the young and deeply spiritual poet Vanya (Artyem Semakin), who knows killing is a sin but who also believes God will forgive him; embittered factory worker Fyodor (Rostislav Bershauer), whose wife was trampled to death by Cossacks during a demonstration; Heinrich (Aleksei Kazakov), a university student whose commitment Georges doubts; and Erna (Ksenia Rappoport), Georges' coke-sniffing lover. Erna gladly smuggles dynamite into Russia and risks life and limb to build Georges' biscuit-tin bombs, but he can't bear to return her love. In fact, outside his dedication to killing the grand duke, Georges doesn't really care about anything, not God nor love nor even socialism, really. Even the shadowy Central Committee and its envoy, Evno Azef (Dmitri Dyuzhev), have begun to question whether that determination has become a dangerous obsession. Georges is a killer who kills without compunction, compassion or ideals — a fact that becomes bitterly apparent after he's unexpectedly reunited with Elena (Anastasia Makeeva), an old lover who's now married to an inconvenient imperial officer (Valery Storozhik). Shakhnazarov frames the based-on-fact fiction with incidents taken from both Russia's past and Savinkov's own extraordinary life, a mixture that encourages us to view the film as metaphor rather than history — although the pre-Russian Revolution atmosphere and period detail, particularly the night-club and opera scenes, are exquisite. Think of it as a dark, suspenseful scenario penned by Joseph Conrad and designed by Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Renoir, and jump right in.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: A stunning re-creation of turn-of-the-19th-century Moscow is the centerpiece of director Karen Shakhnazarov's adaptation of The Pale Horse, the 1909 novel by notorious revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov, who wrote several pseudonymous books based on hi… (more)

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