How do we know what is good for the people? Is a revolution really necessary for real change to occur? What if an artist’s work is removed from his original intention, will he still be responsible for the events and thoughts resulting from his work?
These were the questions the Italian film I Demoni Di San Pietroburgo (The Devil of St. Petersburg) attempts to answer by portraying the life of the Russian author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (played by Roberto Herlitzka) in a film that is almost like an epic in magnitude.
The title of the film presents a unique enigma, who is the devil in the story? In fact I finished watching the film without filling in the void of the question posed by the title. Although this is not central in the understanding of the film, the riddle of the devil is enough to incite me to come up with several readings of the text.
I Demoni Di San Pietroburgo presents an interesting backdrop of the mid-19th century St. Petersburg, dubbed as Russia’s most ‘European’ city. It opened with a scene where the writer Dostoevsky visits a university student, Gusiev, who is confined in the city’s mental asylum. The student, a member of a group of revolutionary students, warned the writer of the impending assassination of the Grand Duke planned by his group led by Aleksandra, a young aristocratic woman who is the niece of the attorney general. Dostoevsky must find the young woman and convince her not to go on with the assassination.
Here the dilemmas of the protagonist are introduced: the feeling of being responsible for the planned assassination as these students were influenced by his writings more than by their revolutionary leader, Bakunin; the belief on use of violence to change the system – something that Dostoevsky himself do not adhere to; and the domestic concerns of finishing his novel on time as he has made a promise to his publisher to present the manuscript after accepting 10 thousand rubles in advance payment.
The author goes back to his experience as a political prisoner in the gulag of Siberia where he meets face to face ordinary Russian prisoners, criminals, thugs, thieves, and murderers. There he sees the obvious disconnect between the passionate political idealizing by the young urban intellectuals and other writers such as Turgenev of the ordinary Russian serfs and reality. For Dostoevsky, these idealized people who are the object of the revolution being started by the urban intellectuals are as shallow, jealous, greedy, depraved, frightened, and even at times grateful, as any urban regular Russian dwellers.
Fyodor Mikhailovich finds no reason for the revolution in “the Russian people” and takes the stance of anti-violence creed, a stand that places him in a contradictory position opposite the students who view him as their source of inspiration and ideals.
In the end Dostoevsky becomes the necessary devil both in the eyes of the students and the oppressive state. He is the devil who realizes that real freedom is neither found in the revolutions to overthrow the powerful using violence nor is it gained through trampling on other people’s rights to forward the state’s. Real freedom emanates from the people, it comes from their own personal struggles to free themselves from whatever that bounds their spirit, to fly like an eagle freed by the prisoners of the Siberian gulag.
Although the film borders on being historical at times, a viewer who has no knowledge of pre-revolutionary Russian history will not feel alienated as the film clearly expounds on these details without being boring. In fact, it is successful in giving the viewers a glimpse of the author’s romance with his stenographer and who later becomes his wife Anna Grigorievna (exquisitely played by Anita Caprioli). This film directed by Giuliano Montaldo and written by Guiliano Montaldo, Paolo Serbandini, and Monica Zapelli is beautiful and well-made. It offers mystery we seldom see in a historical film, romance lacking in a mystery film, and history as riveting and suspenseful absent in a love story.
Demoni Di San Pietroburgo is one of the twelve films screened in the 12th Cine Europa currently being held at EDSA Shangri-la, from 11th to 21st September 2009.