Arkadi Sirenko, “The Temptation of B / Iskushenie B” (1990)
A curious film, one of the last made in the Soviet Union before its downfall in 1991, “Iskushenie B” is a science fiction piece based on two works by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, who together wrote a number of short stories, novels and movie scripts in the Russian-language science fiction genre. A writer, Felix Alexandrovich Snegirev (Lembit Ulfsak), living alone in a dingy apartment and eking a living writing stories and articles for a small magazine, accidentally stumbles across evidence of a magic elixir that makes its drinkers immortal if they take a small drop of it every three years. Almost immediately he is taken hostage in his home by five people, some of whom he thought he knew as work associates, who turn out to be jealous guardians of the elixir. Since there can only be five people, all immortal, who know of the elixir and Felix has happened upon the secret, he is presented with a choice of death or choosing immortality which in turn means fighting one of the current five for the right to be the fifth guardian – which would mean one of the combatants would have to die.
It’s a low-key and thoughtful if not especially deep film that revolves around character. Felix continually rejects immortality for various reasons: at first he’s not interested in being immortal if it means one guardian has to die and if he can never see his daughter Lisa or his grandchildren again. Other considerations come into play and the guardians themselves each take turns trying to convince him of the wisdom of taking the elixir or not. The leader of the guardians, a scientifc man, appeals to Felix’s intellecutal vanity, because the others are frankly shallow and self-centred. The woman with whom Felix once had a romance suddenly finds him courageous and sexy. Two other guardians either find him deep and perhaps not to be trusted or more worthy of the elixir than their companion, the feckless Kudryukov, who had been responsible for mentioning the elixir to Felix, thus necessitating his hijack and the choice between two unwanted alternatives. No great philosophical concepts are explored and no insights into morality, the implications of choosing between death and the immortality that is possible only when another dies, or into the human condition are attained.
The conclusion is quite unexpected and there is a surreal scene which suggests that Felix is rewarded but whether the reward is immortality or something else is left to the viewer to decide. The scene is done in such a way that it could be interpreted also as a figment of Felix’s imagination, one that he might return to from time to time, wishing perhaps that he should have chosen differently from what he was actually granted. Or could the reward be poison that the guardians have left behind to punish him?
The acting is excellent though the characters of Felix and the guardians are perhaps a bit stereotyped: Felix the writer with a strong moral sense and integrity; the guardian leader, the only intellectual man in the select quintet who’d like a friend at least as intelligent as he; Natalya the only woman who has an amorous interest in Felix; cowardly Kudryukov; the urbane man who nurses a dislike of Kudryukov for stealing his cook; and the policeman / enforcer, brusque in manner and a bit sinister. All the actors fit into their roles well and to some extent even look their parts: Ulfsak who plays Felix looks suitably sensitive, a bit haggard and down-at-heel, having seen better days as a writer, husband and father; and Natalya Gundareva, who plays the woman guardian, looking rather cheap, pudgy and not a little sleazy.
The quality of the film is quite good though perhaps it looks rather dark in places and sometimes scenes that take place in light-coloured areas look a little bleached (that might be due to the quality of the film stock or how it has aged since 1990). The pace is leisurely and the plot is driven entirely by dialogue and character development.
Although I wish that the film had delved more into Faustian territory and had explored what it means to be human and authentic (certainly the guardians don’t seem to live very authentic lives, having to hide from police, assume different identities and be secretive in order to stop others from finding out about the elixir), “Iskushenie B” is very entertaining to watch with quite a few surprises in store. Though very talkative by Western standards, the film never descends into a boring, stodgy talkfest going round and round in circles: the characters always seem to have something significant to say or utter something that reveals a great deal about their personalities. Interesting to see that being immortal isn’t cranked up to be what others imagine it!