Venice film festival winner Alexander Sokurov has remained an enigma in Russia whose art nearly landed him in a Soviet prison and who was only kept in his country by the beauty of the Hermitage.
The 60-year-old Siberian with the penetrating gaze and uninhibited camera began to develop a reputation for poetic but severe work that refused to follow conventions as early as his student days.
His first of nearly 40 films — a black-and-white adaptation called "The Lonely Voice of Man" that he shot in 1978 for his diploma — was immediately denounced for its "anti-Soviet" take on unattainable dreams.
Sokurov reportedly managed to save the film from destruction by Soviet censors by stealing it from the state archive. But only history helped rescue his career.
The threat of Soviet labor camps hung over Sokurov throughout the 1980s as he worked in a state studio while directing films that fell consistently foul of Communist Party tastes.
He had no audience and seemingly no future. But he had a rare friend in the late Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky — a towering figure in the world of cinema who saw genius where others saw dangerous thought.
"Sokurov does strange and even inexplicable things. They seem stupid, unconnected," Tarkovsky once reportedly said of his young disciple.
"But he is a genius. It is the hand of a genius."
Sokurov recalled that Tarkovsky had twice offered to arrange ways he could flee the Soviet Union in a sad passage mirroring those of other dissident artists and writers of the time.
But Sokurov was kept in his native Saint Petersburg by his love for the Russian language and discovery that the treasures filling his native city’s Hermitage museum could speak and make him feel a part of a broader world.
"I could visit two or three times a week and just sit there," Sokurov recently recalled of his 1980s trips to the great museum.
"And then I started looking differently at Russia. Seeing the paintings of El Greco and Rembrandt, I realized that there was absolutely no distance between my language and theirs — and in that case, why should I leave?"
His emotional commitment to the Hermitage translated into the seminal 2002 work "Russian Ark" — a tale of Russian history told through an uninterrupted 96-minute sweep through the grand halls of the former imperial palace.
The New York Times called it a "magnificent conjuring act" that describes a powerful Russian nobility "oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give."
Sokurov has remained as fascinated with the human condition as he has been ashamed by the blood and violence that began filling Russian movie screens with the onset of perestroika and the ultimate fall of the Iron Curtain.
Freedoms from Soviet cultural prosecution afforded him a chance to show his latest creations in the West. He became a regular at Cannes and developed friendships with the West’s most celebrated directors.
But Sokurov remained anonymous at home and increasingly despairing of local film culture.
"I am feeling more and more lonely. None of the (Russian) filmmakers are following my direction," Sokurov once told a reporter in 2003.
"There is more and more blood on the screens of Russia as the days pass. We have to present a more humane way of living that can stand up to this aggression and violence."
His just-completed tetralogy exploring some of the darker side of human nature began with the 1999 film "Moloch" and concluded with his victory in Venice on Saturday with "Faust" — a retelling of Goethe’s tragedy.
Sokurov told Russian television on the eve of the ceremony that he intended to tell a cautionary tale of the many evils a person can do.
"The person bears responsibility for everything — all the faults are his. There is no devil," said Sokurov.
"People have to understand that there is no bottom plank below which a person cannot slip."