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Kill, Baby, Kill

In the annals of Serious Art, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is as imposing as it gets, the title practically shorthand for all those cultural totems that are as revered as they are mentally and physically demanding — something you survive but couldn’t possibly enjoy. No doubt many will regard Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation with similar wariness. Divided into four parts, this 415-minute subtitled version of the 1968 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film has only recently started making the rounds in America. (When the film was originally released in the U.S., it was merely six hours long and dubbed.) But to assume that this affecting drama is some sort of endurance test is to misunderstand Bondarchuk’s approach. Even if you haven’t read War and Peace, its narrative has inspired so many copycats that watching the film is like discovering the birthplace of the Gone With the Wind historic-romantic-tragedy tradition. Set during the early 19th century, the story concerns two friends — emotional Pierre (played by Bondarchuk) and taciturn Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) — whose fates crisscross over the course of seven years. Naturally, a beautiful woman (Natasha, played by Lyudmila Savelyeva) is involved, as is the collapse of an idyllic society — in this case, Russia at the hands of Napoleon. But if the contours will feel familiar to anyone who has seen Pearl Harbor, the surprise is how little Bondarchuk’s film relies on the soap-opera melodramatics other Tolstoy disciples brought to the form. Though this adaptation is famous for the time and money spent making it (not to mention the thousands of extras recruited for the fantastically elaborate ballroom and battle scenes), measuring the movie through raw numbers unfairly marginalizes War and Peace as just another unwieldy epic. At heart, Bondarchuk’s film is about the nature of destiny — how time and circumstance gradually impose their will on us — and so the movie’s length becomes crucial to allowing the central characters’ measured transformations to occur almost in real time. Perhaps that’s why, even at seven hours, none of the film’s scenes seems unnecessary. Beyond its spectacle, this War and Peace is a marvel of construction and momentum, of emotional through lines that extend in lovely, subtle ways. Bondarchuk knows he is working with Serious Art, but he wisely shows us why this particular cultural totem became so revered in the first place. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; through Sat., June 21. Parts 1 & 2, Fridays, 7:30 p.m; Parts 3 & 4 Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. www.lacma.org.)

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