“It is far to God, but it is even farther to the Tsar ” (an old Russian saying)
By Dimitri Mokhov
Serko is based on a true story about a legendary horse Serko. In the 19th century Dmitry Peshkov, a young sotnik (Cossack lieutenant) of the Amur Cavalry Regiment, rode from Blagoveschensk to St Petersburg in one-hundred-ninety-four days, on a single mount. In the capital he was received by the Tsar, who presented him with a medal. The distance from the Far East to St Petersburg is more than 8800 kilometres.
Serko, then, is a nineteenth century ‘road movie.’ As with all road movies the interest lies not in what happens to the hero upon his actual arrival at his destination (which is always a moment of anti-climax), but in the adventures he has along the way. And boy, does Peshkov have some adventures. And that’s the trouble with the film. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The 18-year-old Cossack Dimitri Peshkov decides that he is tired with Siberia; he has never been out of his village, and he decides to travel across Siberia on horseback to get an important message to the Tsar about the abuse of the native Evenk tribe at the hands of a corrupt local Governor. The Governor is offering the Evenk men only a handful of guns and a few sacks of flour, in return for their herd of special horses. He wants to make food out of the horses, to feed the workers on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Peshkov saddles up his faithful horse Serko, and sets out to ask the Tsar to uphold his promise to protect the Evenks and their horses. Along the way, he meets Buryats, Manzhurs, Kazakhs, a lost settlement of Old Believers. He learns about the customs and traditions of the unknown parts of Russia and its variety of Asian peoples (played by non-professional actors), who are, as yet, still separated from civilization. Meanwhile, the Governor, fearful the Tsar will hear of his perfidy, attempts to sabotage Peshkov’s journey. But the brave Peshkov crosses snowy paths with the puppeteer Fragonard, who incorporates Dimitri's amazing adventures into his shadow-puppet performances. The fame of both men grows. Not so, the film itself.
An excerpt from a review of the film, printed on the back of the DVD I bought, makes it all sound very promising: “You will make a wonderful trip through Siberia, see amazing landscapes, and learn a lot about Russia even if the story is set in the 19th century. This story is also a little Russian history. In conclusion, a good movie for all the family!” And the fact that Peshkov is played by Aleksei Chadov is a big drawing-card for the film. Chadov is one of the most popular and successful actors working today in Russian cinema. You might have seen him in Night Watch and Company 9. Furthermore, the film is an international co-production between Proline Film in St Petersburg (known for their work with the art-house director Alexander Sokurov) and the French entertainment company Canal +.
But somehow the film doesn’t quite hang together. It is not so much the number of factual mistakes in geography, history, costume and culture which prevent one from enjoying what should be a ripping good yarn. It is the sheer number of adventures, and the sense one has when watching the film that one has come across a travel programme on the Discovery Channel.
The film, however, is extraordinarily beautiful. Russia, as presented by the director Joel Farges, is like a country out of a fairy tale, with snow-white ice and clear blue skies. The beauty of the film is such that you can almost forget about the failings of the screenplay.