I was browsing through IMDB.com the other day, and I found out that Kirsten Dunst had starred in some movie called "Lover's Prayer." I poked around the Internet for some information, and I realized that "Lover's Prayer" was the movie for which Miss Dunst had spent some time in the Czech Republic filming (I had read about her stay in that country in a magazine article).
In the movie, Kiki (Dunst inadvertently gave herself that nickname when she tried to pronounce her name as a toddler) plays Zaniada, a Russian princess summering in the countryside with her mother, Princess Zasyekin (Julie Walters, recent Oscar-nominee for "Billy Elliot"). Vladimir (Nick Stahl) and his family are also vacationing in the countryside while he studies in preparation for his university entrance exams. Vladimir instantly becomes infatuated with the beautiful and alluring Zaniada, as do many other gentlemen who call upon the two princesses. (And, for good measure, a reference to Freud's theory about the Oedipus complex appears towards the end of the film.)
Everyone treats Vladimir as if he were a naïve schoolboy. However, this is the summer in which he learns about "love". He learns about the complex web of social relationships that develop among the elite of Russian society. Most importantly, though, the filmmakers do not condemn Zaniada. While she does something that would be deemed socially scandalous, her actions are indicative of the way "progressive" societies have always placed women in difficult positions. This European approach to social morality is much more reasonable than the one found in American films, where distinctions between good people and bad people are always unrealistically too clear.
I was impressed with Nick Stahl's acting. While his character seems rather passive, Stahl is a good foil to all the other actors. Everyone in "Lover's Prayer" has a tendency to overact, but Stahl grounds the film in his quiet, observant manner. Also, once again, Kirsten Dunst has delivered a solid performance. She is the most promising actor of her generation, proving that her talent has matured far more than her peers' (Natalie Portman, Julia Stiles, Anna Paquin, et al). Interestingly enough, as with "The Crow: Salvation," Dunst gets top billing despite her limited screen time.
The film plays from Vladimir's point of view, and one of the consequences of that approach to the story is that a voiceover narration is used throughout the whole film. It gets tiresome listening to the voice of an older version of Vladimir mumbling obvious things about what's happening in the movie. I guess you could treat it as a bad version of an audio commentary, albeit one that you can't turn off.
A fellow by the name of Reverge Anselmo produced, wrote, and directed "Lover's Prayer." I guess Mr. Anselmo was so involved in the project that he simply had to be the man in charge of everything on the set. On the other hand, if you look at the production credits, you'll find that Anselmo wasn't the only person burning more than one end of the candlestick. Producer Jo-Anne Smith also did the make-up for Kirsten Dunst. That seems to imply that the production was so small that everyone had to contribute 110 percent to the film.
Anselmo adapted the screenplay from "First Love" by Ivan Turgenev and "The Peasant Women" by Anton Chekhov. Now, I have no idea if the two works are related in any way, but I was glad to see a film with its roots in Russian literature. I've read my share of Russian authors; Russian literature is something that holds a great deal of fascination for me because I can learn about how different Russia used to be before it became the Soviet Union. For example, the great epic novels invariably discuss Russian nobility's affinity for speaking in French. The Russian court once viewed its own mother tongue as too ordinary to convey the grandeur of royalty, so it became fashionable for the wealthy to pepper their speech with French expressions. In "Lover's Prayer," Vladimir's mother is the most obvious representation of this lingual elitism.
The film will shock viewers unfamiliar with Russian culture or history with its depiction of the way Russian aristocracy treated peasants and serfs (the equivalent of slaves). Some people might think it rude or haughty for some of the characters to behave the way that they do in the film, but this accurately reflects the almost inhuman treatment of the poor by the rich in the Russian Empire of the past. The silly games (social and psychological) that the aristocrats played underscored the total boredom felt by the upper classes. (Speaking of the Franco-Russo connection, there is even a French term for that sort of boredom: ennui.) They worked their servants so hard that they had nothing to do themselves except to get involved in scandals. Although it doesn't provide much of a history lesson, "Lover's Prayer" serves as an introductory bit about the reasons why Russians were so sick of their abusive Czarist rulers, a resentment that culminated in the Communist Revolution of 1918.
The Russian literary tradition doesn't often translate well into cinema. Authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote massive tomes (1,000-plus pages) featuring characters struggling with tremendous internal psychological turmoil. Other than close-ups of actors troubled faces, it's not that easy visually presenting a character's mental battles with him-/herself. Therefore, audiences usually find themselves being tortured by turgid, torpid adaptations of Russian novels.
Thank heavens, then, that "Lover's Prayer" clocks in at a pleasant 106 minutes. The filmmakers realized that they did not have a complex story to tell, so they do their job by moving the story along briskly.
Image Entertainment is distributing "Lover's Prayer" in North America on DVD. The video image appears as an anamorphic print framed at 1.78:1 (more commonly used in Europe than in the U.S.) The film is fairly recent (1999), so the transfer is pretty good. Colors are warm and natural, and there is real depth to the compositions. However, the print is not clean. There are numerous occasions where scratches on the negative mar the image, and it's apparent that people weren't careful when they handled the print used for the DVD.
The only language option available is an Dolby Digital 2.0 surround English track. Obviously, not too many directional effects are employed, but the music score does get a nice surround presentation once in a while. While I'm not going to be jumping up and down about the audio presentation, I'm not going to quibble about it, either.
The disc offers an unlisted extra--a DD 2.0 stereo music-and-audio-effects track. Watching the movie with this track gives you an approximation of what it was like to watch the very first sound films (which had music and audio effects but no audible dialogue).
The only other extra provided on the disc is a theatrical trailer, but I don't know of a single movie theater that played this movie here in the U.S. After all, what's the point of showing the trailer if the movie had no theatrical engagements? Also, I found it to be so laughable that a small-budget movie about a simple love story could be described breathlessly as "an epic romance" by the trailer's narrator. It just goes to show how marketers tend to oversell a movie in order to get more people into seats without even having watched the film.
"Lover's Prayer" feels like one of the lesser BBC productions that we see on PBS States-side (one that plays in the middle of the night, that is). However, I write that mostly because we Americans have become used to delightful, entertaining fare such as A&E's "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries and the "Touching Evil" series on PBS's "Mystery" program. The film offers a few charms courtesy of actors Nick Stahl and Kirsten Dunst, but I'm afraid that most people will find this movie to be too uneven and uneventful to be worth viewing.