Ben Kingsley Stars in Surreal Drama That Helps Unlock the Enigma of Shostakovich

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TESTIMONY PBS, tomorrow, 9-11:30 p.m. (check local listings). Film drama based on the memoir by Dmitri Shostakovich. Produced and directed by Tony Palmer. Starring Ben Kingsley. NO other person in the history of the Soviet Union has received more decorations from the state than Dmitri Shostakovich. Yet, paradoxically, the composer suffered almost as much official ridicule as he enjoyed praise.

He could have defected, but didn't. Instead, he chose to keep composing music that was frequently used by the Stalinist regime for political ends. Meanwhile, he publicly denounced 'emigr'e colleagues, most notably Igor Stravinsky at the 1948 World Peace Conference in New York.

In 1960, he joined the Communist Party. He died 15 years later a hard-drinking, broken man, eulogized by the Soviet state but seen as an enigma outside it. Loyal comrade or closet dissident? No one really knew for sure. Until 1979.

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In that year, a controversial book, ``Testimony,'' was published in America. Edited by the composer's trusted friend Simon Volkov, who later defected to the States, ``Testimony'' was Shostakovich's secretly dictated memoir. The image that comes through from it is of a fierce anti-Stalinist who was prepared to compromise whatever was necessary to survive. The riddle, so it seemed, was solved.

Now there is Tony Palmer's film adaptation, which has been receiving wide acclaim around the world - except in Shostakovich's homeland - bringing his story to an even larger audience.

Since first released two years ago, ``Testimony'' has been shown in movie houses from Singapore to South Africa and America. And now the movie is getting its first-ever TV airing, tomorrow on PBS.

Starring Ben Kingsley (``Gandhi'') as Shostakovich, ``Testimony'' will not be everybody's cup of tea. A straightforward biography, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, it isn't. Told as if the composer were speaking from the grave, this is a dramatization, rather than a documentary, which is one step - occasionally two - removed from reality.

Shot largely in black-and-white, it tells its story primarily through impressionistic montages with bold, sometimes surreal images flashing onto the screen at a furious pace.

Stalin's Russia is depicted by enormous machines pounding, molten metal sizzling, steel cogs grinding, and ramrod military figures marching, while, in perfect unison with the visuals, one of the most evocative scores ever put to a film dips and swells. In fact, rarely is music - almost exclusively Shostakovich's - allowed to take such a dominant role in a film.

When even music can't convey the enormity of atrocities perpetrated by Stalin, actual footage of a particularly gruesome nature is juxtaposed with the mechanical imagery. The cumulative effect is as chilling as it is stirring.

The film is not without weaknesses. At a running length of 2 hours, the film occasionally feels repetitive, while the montage approach makes it difficult at times to follow. For maximum impact, the film would demand large-screen viewing. Moreover, some of the subtle points in ``Testimony'' have been unwittingly obscured by the film's density. But even so, ``Testimony'' remains a powerful and uncommonly thought-provoking film - all told a masterly achievement.

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