Tale of How Tsar Peter Married off His Negro

[Сказ про то, как Царь Петр арапа женил]
USSR, Mosfil'm, 1976
Color, 100 minutes
Russian with no English subtitles

Director: Aleksandr Mitta

Screenplay: Aleksandr Mitta, Iulii Dunskii, and Valerii Frig

Based on: The Moor of Peter the Great by Aleksandr Pushkin

Cinematography: Valerii Shuvalov

Art Direction: Igor' Lemeshev and Georgii Koshelev

Music: Al'fred Shnitke

Cast: Vladimir Vysotskii, Aleksei Petrenko, Ivan Ryzhov, Irina Mazurkevich, Mikhail Koshenov, and Zhenia Mitta

Aleksandr Mitta's Tale of How Tsar Peter Married off His Negro is based on Aleksandr Pushkin's The Moor of Peter the Great (1827), an unfinished historical novel inspired by Pushkin's great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, who was brought to Russia from Africa in 1704 as a slave and worked his way up to become a great military leader, an engineer, a nobleman, and was eventually adopted by Peter the Great.  Gannibal was enslaved by Peter's orders not only because it was fashionable to have black children in European courts at the time, but because Peter wanted to prove that even the most savage "Arap" could be civilized through a Russian education and a Christian baptism.  Although Mitta's Tale is similar in many ways to Pushkin's work, in its aesthetics and narrative the film is more faithful to the genre of the fairy tale than to the historical novel.

While the Tale unfolds like a fairy tale, its hero is not the traditional Ivan the Fool.  The protagonist is Ibrahim who, like Pushkin's great-grandfather, is an African Russian and a personal favorite of Peter the Great.  The role of Ibrahim is played by legendary bard Vladimir Vysotskii who, despite his blackface make-up, is an unconvincing African.  Verisimilitude, however, is not the film's primary goal: with colored, flashing lights, sound effects, animation frames that resemble lubok art, and perfectly timed thunder, Tale is like an Ivan Bilibin illustration come to life.  The action of the film takes place in unrealistic settings, such as on the skeleton of one of Peter's unfinished ships, and characters' motion is sped up and slowed down in accordance with the narrative action of the film.
 In Mitta's Tale, Ibrahim is portrayed as a loyal follower of Peter the Great and as the most moral individual in the Tsar's court (even more so than the Tsar himself).  Ibrahim refuses to marry a girl who does not love him and mourns his separation from his illegitimate child, conceived during his time in Paris.  His magnanimousness, however, overshadows his exoticness.  Ibrahim is described as "not black, but chocolate" and refuses to engage in many "barbaric" Russian customs, such as Peter's morbid, practical jokes.  Many who meet Ibrahim ask how he knows Russian, and Ibrahim, although morally superior to his Russian compatriots, answers that he is Russian.  This claim of "Ia russkii" is the line that will later become one of the primary jokes in Aleksei Balabanov's Dead Man's Bluff (2005) where an Ethiopian tries to convince his white, Russian associates, to their amusement, that he is Russian despite his appearance.  Like Pushkin's description of the Moor of Peter the Great, Ibrahim is seen as "a rare beast, an exceptional and strange creature, accidentally transferred to their world," but also as an individual who identifies himself with this world, despite his physical otherness. 
 Although Ibrahim is harassed and ostracized by many members of Peter's court, Mitta's film ends on a happy note.  As in any good fairy tale, the princess falls for the beast and helps him assimilate into society.  Natasha, who initially found Ibrahim so repulsive that she fainted upon discovering that she was betrothed to him, comes to love her admirer—the man with "the face of a Moor and the soul of a Russian"—and the two live happily ever after.

 

Aleksandr Naumovich Mitta

Aleksandr Mitta was born in Moscow in 1933 and graduated from the engineering department of MISI under V. Kuibysheva.  Mitta worked as a caricaturist before graduating from VGIK in 1960 (workshop of Mikhail Romm).  He went on to direct a number of films and wrote the screenplays to Lost in Siberia (1991), The Story of the Voyages (1984, USA), Tale of How Tsar Peter Married off His Negro (1976), among others.  He has also acted in July Rain (1966) and Trial By Fire (1998, USA).  Mitta was a member of the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival (1980) and has taught dramatic techniques at Hamburg University's Graduate Film program (1995-6).

Filmography

1961    My Friend, Kolka! (co-director Aleksei Saltykov)
1963    Without Fear or Reproach
1965    Someone is Ringing, Open the Door
1969    Burn, Burn My Star
1972    Period, Period, Comma...
1974    Moscow, My Love (co-director Kendzi Esida)
1976    Tale of How Tsar Peter Married off His Negro
1980    Flight Crew
1984    The Story of the Voyages
1988    A Step (A Live Vaccine)
1991    Lost in Siberia
2000    The Border: A Romance of the Taiga (TV)

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