The Moscow Times
John Freedman

There is a great sequence in Nikita Mikhalkov's Dark Eyes which, coming smack dab in the middle of a lyrical, tender, thoroughly Chekhovian movie, may be the best cinematic rendition of Gogolian humor ever.

Marcello Mastroianni's 19th-century Italian hero, in search of a Russian woman he fell in love with at a European spa, arrives at what seems like a conveyer belt of St. Petersburg government offices to get permission to travel to the provinces. Every blank-faced bureaucrat is willing to give him that elusive, required signature, but none can do it. One doesn't have paper, another lacks a pen, a third has no ink. Finally, someone has all the necessary implements, but he still can't sign: He doesn't have any arms.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that divinely comical little story within a story while watching Sergei Gazarov's recent film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's classic play, The Inspector General. And not just because of the Gogol connection, since Gazarov features Mikhalkov himself as the provincial mayor who gets duped so devastatingly into mistaking a wayward St. Petersburg clerk for a government inspector.

What really begs the comparison, though, is how these two movies handle theatrical material of varying degrees. The scene in Dark Eyes, of course, was entirely the creation of Mikhalkov. He played with a theme and style which lie at the root of the Russian theater tradition, but every gesture, glance and intonation in the segment is cinematic. It is as though he concocted something which Gogol might have, had the great writer been around to experiment in motion pictures.

Gazarov's film, by contrast, is conceived, performed and filmed entirely as a theatrical production. The camera is stubbornly static, the settings boxy and claustrophobic. Perhaps not surprisingly, since theater usually translates to film badly, the director's most conspicuous "concessions" to the possibilities of film are really what hold this picture back: At times you wonder if it consists of nothing but whispered dialogue and parades of facial close-ups.

There is ample opportunity to examine in intimate detail Mikhalkov's puffy cheeks, bulging chin and bushy moustache, first as he lazily informs a gathering of his provincial town's prominent men that an inspector general is expected to arrive, and then stumbles into disaster when he takes the wrong man, the eccentric and opportunistic young Khlestakov, into his familial embraces.

The mayor's cronies, with rare exception, are mere portraits in a gallery, temporary cut-aways to break up the monotony. What a shame to see the splendid Oleg Yankovsky reduced to filler as he plays the corrupt judge Lyapkin-Tyapkin. Looking every bit a cross between an Errol Flynn pirate and a Clark Gable smoothy, Yankovsky might really have taken this film somewhere if only the camera had settled on him long enough for him to do something more than grin sleazily.

The best moment comes when Gazarov veers outside the play, giving us what Gogol didn't. And Yankovsky leads the way. At this point, the mayor has already delivered the broke and hungry Khlestakov (Yevgeny Mironov) from the clutches of the inn-keeper, thinking he is buttering up a bigwig. The director of charities (Aleksei Zharkov) is hosting a little banquet, and Lyapkin-Tyapkin encourages the guest to do some duck-hunting from the window (with a man on a ladder outside tossing in dead ducks after each shot, until he falls and is knocked unconscious). It is a rare chance for Yankovsky and company to show a bit of life, and they do it with verve.

Less effective is the melding of the classic bumbling duo of Dobchinsky/Bobchinsky into a single character (Avangard Leontiev) haunted by the specter of his non-existent partner. It only gives rise to more face-making as everyone pretends not to notice Dobchinsky is crazy.

Mironov is wonderful as the weird, impulsive Khlestakov, slyly allowing others to let him take advantage of them and brazenly throwing himself into the arms of the mayor's titillated wife (Marina Neyolova) and under the skirts of his daughter (the eternally grinning but seemingly uncomfortable Anna Mikhalkova, Nikita's real-life daughter). But, impressive as he is, Mironov's limitations are those of the film – he gives a thoroughly theatrical performance. (Catch him on television Friday night in Valery Todorovsky's Love at 10:10 p.m. on channel 2 if you want to see him at his cinematic best.)

The Inspector General is not bad. It is colorful and occasionally funny, but it never has enough vision to become a real movie. Maybe it'll look better in television re-runs when all those facial close-ups won't seem so monstrous.