"A man can't be exiled farther than Siberia," says the Eternal Grandfather, ancient sage and enduring metaphor of the three- hour Russian epic "Siberiade." It's an elegiac work spanning 60 years of civil and scientific disruption: What was a tsunami in Moscow was as a ripple in Elan, a remote hamlet in the vast tundra, 6,000 miles wide.
"Siberiade" follows two families with opposing ideology through the generations -- the Solomins, merchants and gentry, and the Ustyuzhanins, woodsmen and wayfarers. They marry, murder and misunderstand one another in pastoral Elan. Elsewhere, cossacks wage wars and revolution in newsreel footage set double-time to computer sound. The technique breaks the film into four parts, each focused on a single character.
Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov- Konchalovsky offers visual riches beyond imagining early in the film. Colors shift and fade and glow. Mystic light and creatures conjure up a fantastical realm of the senses.
Eternal Grandfather (Pavel Kadochnikov), a Merlin with birds in his hair, smears the lips of a Solomin earth mother with a red berry. She is like a bee drunk on pollen as she moves through the forest to find her Ustyuzhanin lover. She's a copious red- blond, a voracious, vicious lover. Indeed, it seems any encounter with a Russian woman will end in a bruised ego at worst and a split lip at best. But a new generation is crossbred.
There are symbols and sounds beyond reckoning. Woods whisper to a road man who pets each tree he fells to build a wooden road to central Russia. There's a menagerie of metaphor: starving baby chicks, mating swans, flying geese and a reappearing brown bear that comes to sniff the progress of the road.
This is not propaganda but poetry. Konchalovsky's vision is also verse, for he co- authored the script with Valentin Yezhov.
His brother Nikita Mikhalkov stars as a modern oil-driller who comes home to pump the wealth out of Elan. Though Mikhalkov is brilliant, his energy, optimism and modernity come as a shock in the film's last act, with its sudden shift from the bucolic to the bureaucratic. And here the script takes a prosaic turn to praise the state. Otherwise, the director has avoided political pabulum, preferring to concentrate on the startling, earthy relationships of the villagers and their folklore. It's wildly romantic stuff that falters in the fiery finale at the oil rig.
The Cannes Prize-winner's release here with English subtitles -- five years after its making -- is nothing short of a happening for film groupies. But "Siberiade" sings to others, too. It's a direct injection of sentiment that can be intuitively understood. From Russia, with love. SIBERIADE -- At the Circle Avalon, Circle Dupont, Circle Embassy, Circle MacArthur, Circle Inner, Circle Outer, Circle theater.