Don Quixote and Sansho Panza get into a series of increasingly violent and humiliating situations, whether they are ineffectually protecting a young shepherd (S. Tsomayev) from a beating or being made the butt of cruel jokes by a series of disbelievers. As they continue, Quixote’s childlike faith begins to crumble.
Cervantes’ novel is a very funny read, but it is also very touching, with Don Quixote’s innocence and faith often falling prey to a procession of cruel pranksters. Don Quixote is essentially a madman, but he is also a man who wants to make the world a better place and his attempts to do so are overwhelmed by the cruelty and inhumanity around him. Kozintse’s film is a very respectful adaptation of the novel’s major themes, but it also a skilful balancing act. While the film is often funny, particularly during the first third, it never feels like it is laughing at Don Quixote, but more sympathetically observing a deluded but fundamentally kind-hearted man. His bewilderment at the cruelty of a world in which chivalry is but a subject for disreputable books and money is the highest purpose is carefully presented and is much more memorable than the admittedly funny pratfalls.
Cherkasov is a fantastic Don Quixote and an inspired choice. Those familiar with Russian cinema might recognise the actor from playing the title roles in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and the Ivan the Terrible films, making his Don Quixote a spoof of his more powerful performances. Yuri Tolubeyev is a fantastic sidekick, giving Panza a not-uncritical faith in his master, which makes their friendship and growing dependence all the more convincing. Cherkasov and Tolubeyev, like Don Quixote and Sansho Panza in the book, are a great double act, being a mix of the straight man and the funny man, their idiosyncrasies nicely complementing each other.
Where the film does fall down, the slightly incongruous Russian soundtrack aside, is in the pacing. The film can’t help but be episodic but it often feels wandering, almost like a sketch film. The film is particularly ponderous in an extended sequence within the court of the Duke and Duchess (Bruno Frejndlikh and Lidiya Vertinskaya). Oddly, many of the best scenes of the book have been excised, such as the Don’s encounter with a herd of sheep, which he takes to be an army of giants, although admittedly this would probably not work half as well on camera. The film does take some liberties with the story, often to good effect, although the placement of the famous tilting at windmills sequence is debatably a miscalculation. Though it is very well handled in itself, its placement within the narrative feels somewhat like a regression in the character.
The film, like the novel, is often philosophical in nature, providing a humanist message about the importance of ideals and of helping people in need. The message is presented skilfully, less as a series of dull speeches, but more from within the film itself. Ingrained within Kozintse’s Don Quixote is a critique of the modern world, which speaks as much of Stalinist Russia (the film was made four years after his death) as it does of today. Don Quixote has an almost dual identity of prophet and madman, a tension that makes the film as philosophically satisfying as it is dramatically.
The film is also lovely to look at, shot in colour and in widescreen, Sovscope to be precise. The camera is pleasingly mobile as is typical in Russian cinema, such as in Sergey Bondarchuk’s monumental 1967 adaptation of War & Peace. The comic timing is near perfect, especially in an early sequence in which Don Quixote tests his new helmet on a terrified Sansho Panza. Towards the end, the film is lyrical and moving, with the finale a muted yet touching and oddly hopeful farewell.
Grigori Kozintse, if not entirely successful, has managed to make a heartfelt and witty adaptation of the Cervantes novel. The film has a real visual flair and well-rounded characterisations. Though it is let down by a plot that is rather unmanageable in filmic terms, the film does justice to the original story and has many interesting ideas of its own. The performances are fantastic and if Terry Gilliam ever does manage to realize his own ambitious version of the knight from La Mancha, he will be hard pressed to find anyone better than Cherkasov and Tolubeyev.