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Grigori Kozintsev, Don Quixote (USSR, 1957)

Bush House, Strand Campus, London

7 Dec Don Quixote main

Grigori Kozintsev, Don Quixote (USSR, 1957; 101 minutes)

The Soviet film director Grigori Kozintsev (1905–1973) was born in Kiev into a Jewish family. He once stated that Shakespeare (from whom he adapted Hamlet [1964] and King Lear [1971]) ‘blends periods and locales’, thereby making it possible to ‘compare, emphasise, generalise’. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), who in a way can be considered a medievalist avant la lettre, certainly placed side by side different periods in his El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615). The work is essentially a parody of romances of chivalry, the main character a member of the minor gentry from somewhere in La Mancha addicted to such romantic adventures. In this sense the work deals with a certain ‘reception’ of the Middle Ages, albeit a fictional and parodic one – even though, as a critic stated, parody is ‘too narrow a term’ for such a work. Cervantes made literature out of life but also out of literature: not only through the use of the chivalric romances, but also because, in Part II, Don Quixote and Sancho meet people who are familiar with Part I. In an essay on Don Quixote written during a transatlantic voyage in 1934, Thomas Mann (1875–1955) argued that this device of having literary characters enjoying their own fame inside a literary work (there is an episode in Part II, also present in the film, in which the two main characters are received at a Ducal court only because of their renowned adventures, the goal of the visit being to amuse the court) was, at least up to that point, unique in world literature. In this case, according to Mann, the characters are transported into a different sphere, into another level of reality – unlike, for example, recurring characters in Honoré de Balzac’s (1799–1850) novels, characters whose reality is legitimised and reinforced by their previous mutual knowledge but who remain in the same level of reality (Mann mentions an episode in Part II in which Sancho tells the Duchess that he believes he is Sancho, unless he was switched at birth – or at printing). Kozintsev’s film, shot in Crimea, is highly regarded, with some critics considering it the best – and the most faithful – adaptation of Don Quixote ever made. Despite the faithfulness, the director makes one relevant and telling change. The famous episode of the fight with the windmills (which Don Quixote sees as giants) comes very early in the book, in Part I, Chapter VIII (pp. 58–65 in Edith Grossman’s 940-pages translation of both parts). In the film, this occurs near the end. With this transposition, Don Quixote’s ‘I am telling you that I believe in people!’ while he is carried by the sail of the windmill is particularly poignant, because it comes after everything that has happened to him (this sentence, and the whole monologue, was wholly added by Kozintsev). And in the very final scene of the film, the director chooses to underline that Don Quixote and Sancho will continue to live/be remembered – in life/literature.


Part of the Medieval Film Club, for more information go to the website.

This screening is open to all and free to attend. No booking required.

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