In exchange for making films as good as "The Sun," about Emperor Hirohito, and "Alexandra," about a long-simmering war's effects on a woman who has seen everything, the director Alexander Sokurov may well have struck a Faustian bargain requiring him to tackle the taunting Faust myth head-on.
The result: "Faust," the Russian director's bumptious response to one of the great challenges in world literature. The film, in German, is delivered in a style very far from the calm of Sokurov's best recent works. The mystic and adventurer has been dramatized by Christopher Marlowe and, epically, in two massive parts that took decades to complete, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There are operas, musicals, comic spoofs of Faust and his devilish deal. Sokurov's version verges on the restlessness of a Terry Gilliam movie, as it scampers after the shady doings of the title character played, with an amusing look of defiance, by Johannes Zeiler.
The movie opens with viscera. Dr. Faust is mid-dissection, and the discussion between him and his assistant, Wagner (Georg Freidrich) bores into the matter of the human soul, its value and precise location.
The devil in this "Faust" takes on the role of a moneylender played by Anton Adasinsky. He has a penis where you'd expect a devil to keep a tail. Sokurov's film, full of the sounds of a grubby 18th Century village and its various animal and foul inhabitants, treats this devil matter-of-factly. He's simply the most eccentric of the local crackpots. Faust wants immortality. He wants also Margarete, played by Isolde Dychauk, and is willing to sign his life away for an evening in her company.
Discursive, freewheeling, "Faust" isn't easy to access. The busy camera and near-constant babble has a way of making the story more remote rather than more immediate. Yet there are some individual shots, lighted beautifully by cinematographer (and "Inside Llewyn Davis" alum) Bruno Delbonnel, that could only have come from a master. When Faust and his beloved fall into a lake together, in an embrace, the image is pure poetry. The overall approach here is more prose-based, however. What binds a woman to a man?" queries one lost soul. Answer: "Money, lust and a shared household."
"Faust" - 3 stars
No MPAA rating (violence, language, some sexual material)
Running time: 2:14
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.