Formula of Love 'Формула любви' (a short study)
1984 ‧ Soviet Romance/Comedy ‧ 1h 30m ‧ dir. Mark Zakharov
Formula of Love - Arsentiy Novak (FR)
'Formula of Love' (Russian: Формула любви) was the seventh entry to Mark Zakharov’s very selective filmography. Released in 1984, the midst of the golden age of Soviet cinema, it proved itself not only worthy of standing alongside the other titans, but also as one of the most enigmatic of Zakharov’s works.
The story opens in 1780’s St Petersburg, where an Italian charlatan and pseudo-magician, Giuseppe Cagliostro (Nodar Mgaloblishvili) performs for the nobility, before being pursued by the authorities. He has two servants, Jacób and Margadon (brilliantly played by Aleksandr Abdulov and Semyon Farada), and a beautiful assistant Lorenza (Yelena Aminova). The former two always do as Cagliostro wills; though not without question and fiendish wit, perfectly balancing comedic relief with Mgaloblishvili’s stoicism. Lorenza on the other hand is hopelessly in love with him, thus her compliance never escapes emotive tenderness. As we find out later, in one of the most profound monologues ever put to screen, Cagliostro has long been searching for the formula of love. He travels the road to compete with the maker, which in the story brings him to a village near Smolensk.
Meanwhile, in that village, a very different story unravels. A young man, Aleksei Fedyashev falls in love with a statue. Like Pygmalion, he wishes for her to come to life, and begs fate for transubstantiation. Upon his path comes Cagliostro, and Act Two picks up from there. As the story progresses, it dwells deeper and deeper into erudite philosophical themes; nature of beauty, love, happiness, miracles and mortality to name but a few. This is very common to Zakharov’s work, a director famous for distilling myths, philosophy and human character into bottles of pure art. One needs only look to “An Ordinary Miracle” (1978), “The Very Same Munchhausen” (1979) or “To Kill a Dragon” (1988), to understand this. There is, however, something troubling about this film. Something at its core, that cuts into your brain. And one struggles to pinpoint exactly what that is.
One could approach it as a bridge between Cagliostro’s world and ours. The story’s dichotomy is quite Shakespearean in nature, for it offers a comparison between our mortal world and an intellect much greater. A mind transcendent to what we know; a wisdom that is overpowering. Grigori Gorin is to blame for this, as the ingenuity with which he adapts Tolstoy’s dialogue is unparalleled. The truths that are pronounced by Cagliostro — and the Doctor for that matter — ring out as an overwhelming bell inside your head. The latter is a representative of scepticism and science, whilst the former of faith and metaphysics. Gladkov’s score transfers the same with music. From the moment one enters into this world, one is greeted with a David Bowie madness mixed in with cult, funeral-type organ playing. It is unsettling. Yet one cannot help but listen, for the euphoria of understanding things previously incomprehensible only increases one’s thirst.
It may also be said that thematically and characteristically, it is borrows much from “Master and Margarita.” These who have read Bulgakov’s masterpiece will undoubtedly recognise a kindred spirit in Voland to Mgaloblishvili’s Cagliostro. Both unsatisfied, unnerving, perplexing and seemingly omniscient. Not to mention that both wield power. Similar parallels may be drawn between their servants, Jacób and Margadon flaunting the same devilish nonchalance as Korovyev and Behemoth. It is precisely such parallels that further the puzzle of the film. It has the same piercing wit, darkness and chaotic energy as “Master and Margarita” — these familiar with the novel will understand the true meaning of this comparison — yet also something else.
May it be Vladimir Nakhabtsev’s cinematography? It is exquisite. Like many of Zakharov’s films, it doesn't falter from experimentation: using striking surrealistic imagery, and a diminished pastel colour gradient, Nakhabtsev infuses mysticism into the piece, effectively both alienating the audience and drawing them in. We are left curious, for the world which is seemingly so close to us becomes disfigured.
Nonetheless, our search for meaning is answered by the villagers. The kind-hearted and straight talking Fedosya Ivanovna, grandmother of Alexsei brings her grandson back to earth, whilst the family Doctor dispels ethereal talk with his usual blasé charm. Even Stepan, the village mechanic, holds his own against Cagliostro’s entourage, in his ‘fixing’ of their chariot.
In performances which are nothing but the truth, each actor invests themselves into every nuance of their character, playing them with absolute conviction; an unmistakable sign of true artistry. They are the glue to Zakharov’s vision. The most impressive of all however is Mgaloblishvili himself. In portraying Cagliostro, he steps away from the traditional interpretation of a lowlife crook, and instead infuses life into a noble, polymathic rationalist. What is most striking is that he mimed each line of dialogue, his voice being dubbed by the eloquent Armen Dzhigarkhanyan; yet delivered such a hypnotic performance that it becomes impossible to tear your eyes away from him. He stands as a rock, a criteria by which we judge all others, and because of this, we come to understand the farcical ideas explored within the story.
It is a comedy, the likes of which has not been seen since the Soviet Union fell. The picture is both alert of itself, and yet escapes the usual predictions. It is a reflection of its audience. A people who’s intelligence was much higher than our own, unsurprisingly gave birth to art much greater than we presently come to expect. It laughs at the shallowness of our preoccupations, yet also at the ‘deep’ philosophical ideals that we hold true. Simplicity and truth. That is its soul, and it is encompassed with a perfect end. Giuseppe Cagliostro smiles.