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Culture news, 22.06.2004 12:07

Moscow Novel 'Margarita' Filmed in City

margarita They came to arrest Grisha Rimsky, financial director of the variety theater, who was hiding, beside himself, in a cupboard in room 412.

This was no real crime, but part of the filming for television of a celebrated novel set in the heart of the Moscow in the 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov's most famous and most mystical work, "The Master and Margarita."

The series, commissioned by Rossiya television channel will be shot mainly in St. Petersburg, with the crew traveling to Moscow for only a few episodes.

But St. Petersburg director Vladimir Bortko insists St. Petersburg is the perfect backdrop for the filming.

"Naturally, there are scenes that can only be filmed in Moscow such as, for instance, Patriarchs Ponds, Pashkov House, or the Alexandrovsky Garden but that's about it," Bortko told reporters after smashing a plate for good luck outside the Astoria last week.

"But Moscow has gone through a series of massive reconstructions since the novel was written, and the landscape has generally very much changed. Much to the regret to our crew, the Bulgakovian Moscow of 1930s is easier to find in central St. Petersburg because it has been much better preserved."

Bortko was not forced to create a film set of the area around Patriarchs Ponds, which is the scene of key events in the novel. In 2002-2003, crowds of Muscovites protested against plans to construct a giant shopping center with underground parking and monuments to Bulgakov and his characters at the Patriarchs Ponds.

The protesters complained that the plans would destroy the character of the area, "vampire style" as some call Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's vast projects. The protesters then won over the Moscow administration, for which the film crew is thankful.

The series will also be shot in Jerusalem, Bulgaria, the Livada palace in Yalta (where the fountains remind the director of those in the Herod Palace in Jerusalem) and Sudak Fortress, the gates of which are reminiscent of ancient gates in Jerusalem.

The novel has parallel plots about the sufferings of 1930s Muscovites and the matyrdom of Jesus Christ.

Bortko's television series will be the first to be screened of the novel, which juxtaposes social satire, romance and mysticism and features a human-size, talking black cat called Begemot.

Despite its colorful characters and the novel being an international success, and a dozen directors, including masters Igor Talankin, Elem Klimov and Eldar Ryazanov all being willing to film the novel, Bortko's will be the first film version.

The other directors' hopes were crushed as all of their proposals were rejected by the country's culture bosses who wanted to censor the work. Bulgakov was regarded as an "unstable element" by the ideologists of the Soviet empire.

Completed just before his death in 1940, "The Master and Margarita," was banned until the mid-1960s.

In 1994, Yury Kara finished editing his take on the novel to become Russia's first director to get that far, but the film was never distributed. Several years later, even the copies had disappeared without a trace.

Now, Bortko - though very careful with Bulgakov's prose - is planning to give his movie a somewhat unconventional, yet still thrilling angle.

The director doesn't add anything new, but devotes particular attention to the episodes in the novel in which Woland, the devil figure, is present - either physically or mentally.

A mechanical device was to be imported from Hollywood for Begemot, but it was felt this would lose the "live" charm of the huge cat. Alexander Bashirov was offered the part.

Oleg Basilashvili plays Woland, while the role of Margarita went to Anna Kovalchuk, and that of the Master - to Alexander Galibin.

Yeshua and Pontius Pilate are performed by Sergei Bezrukov and Kirill Lavrov respectively.

Living up to its mystical reputation, the novel's screen version has survived notable cast reshuffles. Oleg Yankovsky refused to play Woland on the grounds that he did not know how to approach his character, but more importantly because a human being can't possibly portray either God or the devil. Alexander Kalyagin, who had first agreed to star as Berlioz, a character who is decapitated in the novel, eventually reconsidered, reportedly after a heart attack.

Renowned composer Andrei Petrov, the author of a symphonic fantasy and one-act ballet "Master And Margarita", who had been invited to write the soundtrack for Bortko's film, said the idea of making such a film has met much skepticism.

"Many people advised the director not to touch the 'diabolic matters,' or 'deal with supernatural forces,' perhaps because they were superstitious," Petrov said. "They were saying that something strange that makes you scared and send shivers down your spine surrounds the novel. Several actors have refused to star in the film for that very prejudice."

Petrov's music is now not going to be part of the film but not because the composer got cold feet. The director later offered the contract to Igor Kornelyuk.

Bortko himself is approaching the novel for the second time. In 2000, Kino-Most film studio, associated with NTV, chose him to direct their series but at the last moment the company failed to reach an agreement with Sergei Shilovsky, grandson of Bulgakov's wife and the owner of the copyright.

The shooting is scheduled to end by January 2005, with the 10-part series expected to screen by the end of next year.

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(c) 2000