Master i Margarita - Yuri Kara

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In 1994 director Yuri Kara adapted The Master and Margarita for screen. His film was in that time the most expensive post-Soviet production. High inflation and an unstable rouble made the costs go sky-high for the production company TAMP - up to 15 million dollar. When the movie was ready, producers Arsen Adamyan, Irena Mineeva, Aleksander Mishin and Vladimir Skory decided not to release it. Vladimir Skory said that Yuri Kara's director's cut was unacceptable. The soundtrack recorded by Alfred Schnittke was released on CD in 2005 though.

The cast was impressive: it consisted of very famous Russian actors like Anastasia Vertinskaya (Margarita), Valentin Gaft (Woland), Leo Durov (Matthew Levi), Mikhail Ulyanov (Pontius Pilate) and Nikolai Burlyaev (Yeshua). In 2005 a limited number of Moscovites could see the movie on a private session at the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF). One of the happy few was journalist Valery Kitshin of the Rossyskaya Gazeta. He was so impressed that he wanted to make efforts to have it released, and he contacted the producers.

In November 2006, Valery Kitshin published an interview with all people concerned in the production. Conclusion: the producers and Kara were coming closer to each other, but a new troublemaker showed up in the person of Sergey Shilovsky. This grandson of Bulgakov's third wife Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya now claimed, as a self-assigned heir, the rights on Bulgakov's literary inheritance. He said that TAMP had the time until mid-2007 to show a lot of money. If they didn't, he would sell the rights to another interested party which he kept in reserve.

On November 15, 2010, Luxor Company announced that they had bought the right to release the film. It would be shown on big screen for the first time on March 3, 2011. To the wide audience would be shown a two-hour version of the film, whereas the director's full three-hour version would be available on DVDs to be distributed by Luxor Company as well.

And yes, on January 17, 2011, the film was finally shown to the press in Saint Petersburg. The premiere was attended by director Yuri Kara and the actors Igor Vernik (Yehuda), Sergey Garmash (Ivan Bezdomny), Aleksandr Filippenko (Koroviev) and Valentin Gaft (Woland). The press was, to say the least, not very enthusiastic, despite the big names of the actors who are starring in the film.

On April 7, 2011, the film was finally distributed nationwide in the Russian cinemas.

Before that, some illegal dvd's of the film circultated among the Muscovite Bulgakov die-hards, and I'm very happy that I belonged to the inner circle - probably as one of the very few non-Russians - who have seen the movie before its release.

And... is it a good film? Well, in 1994 I would probably have answered positively to this question. But meanwhile we got, of course, the TV series by Vladimir Bortko which made this answer less obvious.

There are moments that Kara comes close to Bortko's level, although he could obviously not compete with the technological developments of which Bortko could dispose eleven years later.

I'm not going to try to compare the actors of both movies. I only want to say that Viktor Pavlov performs quite well and delivers a plausible Behemoth, which is better than what Bortko did, but also that Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Margarita falls a little short of expectations - she's not performing badly, but Anna Kovalchuk from Bortko's series will probably remain my all time favourite Margarita. And Aleksandr Filippenko, who plays in both movies, is, frankly speaking, better as Azazello in Bortko's series, than as Koroviev in Yuri Kara's adaptation.

Purists of the novel will probably comment that Yuri Kara did not include all passages of the book in his film. And indeed we are missing, for instance, the singing staff of the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type in Vagankovsky Lane. But Kara needed to condense the story - he made a 204 minutes film, which is rather long for a movie picture, although less than half of the 500 minutes which Bortko had available. And all in all, Kara gives a faithful reproduction of the book.

However, within the allotted time Kara could have made his movie more balanced. Some scene transmissions were made too fast. Spectators who don’t know the novel will not understand, for instance, why Ivan, after his dive in the Moskow river, is all of the sudden flaunting in the streets of Moscow in his underwear. Other scenes are much too long, like the dance to the strains of Hallelujah in the Griboedov house which seems to come straight from a Hollywood musical - which also goes for the dance of Margarita with the rusalki and the dance of the guests at Satan’s ball.

At this ball, by the way, Yuri Kara shows some guests who are not in the novel. At some point we see, in addition to the historical criminals known the novel, how Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin make their appearance before Margarita. According to Yuri Kara, Bulgakov would have thought of them when he wrote: «The last two guests were coming up the stairs!». But he would not have named them because, when the novel was written, they were still alive.

Another fragment which is not in the novel occurs at the end of the scene at Patriarch's Ponds, when Woland challenges Ivan Bezdomny to destroy an image of Jesus in the sand. Bulgakov had written this scene in The Hoof Of The Engineer, the first version of The Master and Margarita he had made, but he had not retained it for the final version.

Click here to watch the scene from The Hoof Of The Engineer

A minus to me is the music score. In spite of the fact that the soundtrack was commissioned to Alfred Schnittke - who died meanwhile -, Kara also used other music, but not always in a judicious, sometimes even irritating way. The whole ball of Woland, for instance, is accompanied by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. As such a rather nice and quite exciting piece of music, but when it is badly played and long-drawn-out, it can be quite irritating.

After all the acting in the movie is all right, sometimes a little theatrically, and I enjoyed to watch it. But maybe this is partly due to the fact that I was probably one of the few «foreigners» who could see it when it was still illegal. Ah... great memories: a summer evening in Leuven, a private performance for a limited audience of Russian friends, shashlik on the barbecue and Abrau-Durso in the refrigerator. Time flies so fast...

Technical details


Yuri Kara

Mikhail Ulyanov, Anastasia Vertinskaya, Valentin Gaft

Release date
1994 - 2011

200 minutes (1994), 118 minutes (2011)


English, French, German, Italian, Dutch

Here you can watch an excerpt from the film subtitled in English

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