“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”
It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.
Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).
We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.
As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.
Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.