An adaptation of one of my favorite books, The Master and Margarita, with a score by Ennio Morricone and directed by famous Yugoslav Black Wave (I’ve got more posts on that period coming soon) Aleksander Petrovic should be great, right? Well, it’s not, really.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire about Communist oppression and censorship loses steam in Petrovic’s adaptation. The biggest problem: the film is too serious for its own good. Not only does it cut out some of the best parts (Margarita’s flight through Moscow), but it really generally lacks in humor.
Sure, movies gotta cut (although, as a total digression, I was just teaching a class that involved a reading of Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” where he praises Bresson’s version of Diary of a Country Priest basically for not changing much from the source material, and denigrates another attempted adaptation for trimming), but it’s not just that The Master and Margaret isn’t faithful, it’s that it’s pretty boring.
Petrovic hits some of the right notes. Alain Cuny is an inspired choice for Professor Woland (aka Satan), Ugo Tognazzi is a more than serviceable “Maestro”, the master in the title whose work is censored by the Comintern. And there are some funny frames, like this one, where the funeral of a decapitated man replaces his head with a flower:
The commentary in Petrovic’s film is obvious, and it’s the same in Bulgakov’s book, but the few attempts at humor are facile and mostly garish slapstick. There’s not much that bites the way the novel does. Petrovic’s direction is bogged down and slow. Much of that humor comes from Woland’s two sidekicks, who are big, both physically and emotionally:
They’re big in both ways in the book, but are surrounded by extended madcap set pieces. There is a pretty faithful one of those in this film, where a bunch of citizens magically lose their clothes at a theatrical performance:
This is the one time that Petrovic speeds things up and takes a single event to its visually funny extremes. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late, and it feels like a quick grasp at something that’s not there otherwise.
So, humor aside, how could The Master and Margaret be better? For my money it’s a great example of pacing. That’s that “bogged down” comment. Everything’s just a bit slow – the frequency of edits, the camera movements, even the pace of some of the delivery. It all feels like it’s at about 90% speed when it should be at 100. Tognazzi’s Maestro is the only character who really makes sense to be slow and profound. His writing is supposed to be, after all. But when everyone else plods around him as well it doesn’t work.