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"Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II" is a film of greatness, so great in fact that after seeing it only once I would probably include it among the ten finest films I have ever seen. It is a work of bold compositions (visual, aural, verbal, rhythmic, textural, political, etc.) arranged into a dense and exciting network of sensual and intellectual information. The interaction of motifs and ideas, symbolism and iconography into a sort of cinematic Russian fresco is absolutely thrilling. This often has a bizarre effect. The actor's movements are so deliberate as to be completely alien; after all, these are not human beings, they are representations of human beings on a screen, like portraits on a canvas, an idea which adds greatly to the purity of the film's artifice (of course, this is actually even more complex, having something to do with biomechanics, a theory I know too little of to discuss here). The film is completely engrossing, and is really a treasure trove hidden references and information, which really makes it fascinating. Honestly, I can not praise this film enough. It is grandiose and spectacular, a stunning work of depth and complexity.
"Alexander Nevsky" on the other hand would seem to be a very simple film, simple to the point of being stupid. In fact it is very complex (if not quite so much as "Ivan"), and only seems stupid because of a ridiculous political purpose and mindset that weighs it down. Its embarrassingly propagandistic, and politically compromised, something which greatly dulls the films underlying brilliance. "Ivan" is a complete reversal and a far superior film, at least in my view, in that it is able to subvert political expectancies, transforming what was intended as Stalinist propaganda into a disguised Stalinist and Communist critique, even lament. "Nevsky" lacks this independence, and while it is still fascinating as a work of form, structure, and motif (among many other Eisenstinean devices) it is ultimately too compromised to be as great a piece of art as "Ivan."
In spite of that, Criterion's treatment of both films (or three, depending on how you look at it) is absolutely grand. The transfers, aside from some rather rough spots on "Nevsky," are really quite good, the extras are fascinating and deeply insightful, and the packaging is far more attractive than it looks on amazon's picture. I probably own around 20 or more discs by Criterion, and all absolutely fantastic packages, but this one is the best! Absolutely one of the most solid purchases you'll ever make! And it's so wonderful to see these kind of films being given the royal treatment usually reserved for the more recent, popular, and... cough-shallow-cough releases. Long live The Criterion Collection, and God bless the soul of Sergei Eisenstein!
P.S. Oh, and God bless Sergei Prokofiev, composer of these films' beautiful and justly renowned musical scores.