Bolshoi Babylon promises a revealing exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Famous for its prestigious, flawless and stunning ballet productions, the theatre came under much media scrutiny in recent years when director Sergei Filin was attacked on his way home and had acid thrown in his face. The incident left the ex-ballerina scarred and blind in one eye. The documentary follows the aftermath of the event, explores the reasons behind this unthinkable crime, and shows how Filin may not be totally innocent himself. After the attack, Vladimir Urin is appointed general director of the theatre, and the subsequent tension and power play that occurs between Urin and Filin is both compelling and daunting.
Bolshoi Babylon has a number of layers, as the doc also shows the struggles of performers in the company. The personal accounts of the ballerinas prove just as engaging as the revelations behind the running of the theatre. They recount their personal lives and struggles, and also tell of the political determinants of the Bolshoi Ballet, and its fundamental link to the Russian state.
The sheer beauty of the ballerinas’ dancing, both on-stage and off during rehearsals, is breathtaking. Captured by director-cinematographer Nick Read (The Condemned), the camera discovers close-up details and refreshing angles that reveal emotions and strains that the naked eye doesn’t see. When one watches theatre, they scan the stage for fear of missing out on the details of the lavish production. Here, one can enjoy simply taking in the sights, experiencing the intimacy of the theatre and seeing performers for the incredibly talented, creative and persevering individuals they are.
At the same time, with the attention on performers, performances and politics, the film somewhat lacks focus. The ending also comes rather suddenly, and the addition of an epilogue which explains the current status of the directors of the theatre could have helped to fully explain the preceding events (Read and co-director Mark Franchetti were given permission to film in the Bolshoi from 2013 to 2014 but there have been developments in theatre management since). This would have also given the audience a sense of closure. At one point in the film, one interview subject states ‘If the Bolshoi is sick, it’s because Russia is too’ and it is clear that Read and Franchetti intend for the corruption of the theatre to be seen as synonymous with the corruption of the Russian state itself. One tires of this simplistic ‘Russia is evil’ mentality (It should come as no surprise that one of America’s biggest networks, HBO, produced the doc) and hungers for a fresher representation of the country than is evident here.