TESTIMONY (1987) [Feature]

UK (MIFF 1988 )
Director: Tony Palmer

Nothing can prepare you for the visual and aural extravaganza that is Testimony, the fascinating story of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich

The young Shostakovich had success after success until Stalin took a dislike to his opera Lady Macbeth, and in a marvellous scene at the Extraordinary Conference of Soviet Musicians, he is denounced by party officials and other composers. As played by Ben Kingslev, Shostakovich is a beleagured yet brave little man with only his music to keep him warm as he scrapes through purge after purge.

Palmer has virtually abandoned the conventional naturalistic dramaturgy we have come to expect from such historical epics and adopted a heightened, at times surreal style, pulling out all the stops, including inspired use of both the wide Cinemascope screen and Dolby stereo to bring Shostakovich's story to life. Unforgettable are the scenes of Stalin working alone late into the night in his office, which is revealed as the camera pulls back, to be an enormous deserted warehouse, and a slithering steadicam scene that has Shostakovich finding his way around a film studio, the camera peering into each cutting room or sound stage. Eisenstein is shooting in one studio, and another is littered with props from other Soviet classics By concentrating not just on his personal life, but instead on Shostakovich's relationship with Stalin and his fellow musicians, Palmer has created a portrait of an entire period without ever letting the visual flamboyance and the occasional, unexpected streak of humour overwhelm the serious material at hand, (the criticism levelled at Ken Russell's frequent ventures into similar territory).

As Palmer has said about the film's stormy production: "Whatever my troubles, they have been utterly insignificant compared with those which Shostakovich suffered. His long shadow, at once demanding and inspiring, has confronted me relentlessly these past months I may be hopelessly in debt, but like Shostakovich himself, I have somehow survived to tell a tale of awesome power, courage and beauty"

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