Rudolf Nureyev must be the most selfish man who ever lived!
That statement came from a woman in the audience, at the “In Conversation with Ralph Fiennes” which I was fortunate enough to moderate during this year’s Cairo International Film Festival. It was followed by a question about Fiennes’ latest directorial project, ‘The White Crow’, a moving, elegant film about Russian dancer extraordinaire Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West — and the events leading up to it.
But the question itself didn’t leave with me as lasting an impression as her statement, probably because in the very moment the woman uttered the above words, I stopped listening. I was too busy working out deep inside me why I hadn’t felt that way at all about Nureyev, and his decision depicted in the film. In the following days, I’ve worked out the answer. It’s a response I’ve probably been leading up to my entire life and career.
As a journalist and blogger who focuses on film, I’ve not only met my share of impossibly selfish people, I’ve actually dealt with some who make Nureyev look like Mother Teresa. Filmmakers who, upon the death of my friend and their publicist, forward to me invites to his memorial without a single word of comfort. Actors who play with their phones while I try to interview them. Various well-meaning types who, with every single word of praise actually manage to put both me and my work down. In fact, Nureyev’s friendship with Clara Saint (played by Adele Exarchopoulos) the woman who in the film helps him at the moment of his defection, felt really familiar to me. In a way that melted my heart and made me see a human side of the dancer I grew up admiring and whose career I followed until his death in 1993.
They get each other, and that’s all we ever look for in a companion.
Fiennes admitted that he knew he wanted to make a film about Julie Kavanagh’s authorized biography ‘Rudolf Nureyev: The Life’ the moment he started reading it. In fact, he realized almost right away that if he were to make a film about the book, he would want to focus on the first few chapters, Nureyev’s life leading up to his defection at Paris’ Le Bourget airport in 1961. And that he did. With the help of playwright Sir David Hare (‘Stuff Happens’ and ‘Plenty’ and at the movies, ‘The Hours’ and ‘The Reader’) he put together a perfect portrait of Nureyev’s first twenty some years, before his fame overtook it all.
After directing himself in ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘The Invisible Woman’, Fiennes also chose to act in his latest project. It was a choice fueled by the lack of “name” actors in ‘The White Crow’ and Fiennes knew his own name, his presence would help sell the film. If one thing is clear about this man, sitting across from him as I did for more than an hour, in front of hundreds of people, is that he’s a professional first. He will always place the business at hand before the niceties.
Fiennes’ fundamental honesty is what one is left with, long after the actor has left the room.
But back to Nureyev’s story. Variety called the film “a classy — and respectfully sexy — night at the movies,” and I love that definition. Part thriller, part multi-faceted love story, ‘The White Crow’ also captures the imposing, yet sophisticated persona that Nureyev created. With the help of his extraordinary dance teacher Alexander Pushkin (cue to a wondrous performance by Fiennes himself, speaking in Russian, bald and sporting a belly while still managing to look sexy) who was the first person to brilliantly realize that what others called “sloppiness” in Nureyev, was actually his genius — passion. It is within their relationship that I found the most touching moments in the film, because I adored being a fly on the wall witnessing the true humanity of both Nureyev and Pushkin.
Nureyev, to dance lovers, will always remain the man who brought the male dancer to the forefront. Often relegated to lifting up or promenading around the ballerinas, until Nureyev burst onto the scene the male dancer held a supporting role at best. Yet with his flamboyance and fast feet, Nureyev changed all that, and it didn’t hurt that his name was so often in the media. He was a true prima donna, or rather, if translated purely, a “primo uomo” — star of the ballet world.
What I loved most about Fiennes’ perfectly shot and beautifully acted film is how Nureyev’s character in all its nuances is finally explained. Often obscured by the stories of his bravado, or the temper tantrums the media loved featuring in their headlines — or even the story of his untimely death to AIDS— there was a man behind the artist. Born on a train in Siberia, of Tatar blood, this was a very complex, vulnerable, courageous, moody, extraordinary and also perfectly human man, played beautifully by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko.
Talk about nailing a performance, and Ivenko isn’t even an actor!
The film’s title ‘The White Crow’ refers to a Russian way of defining “a person like no other, extraordinary” as the intro to Fiennes’ haunting film reminds us. That word defines both the subject and its filmmaker, two extraordinary men who changed the game in each of their professions. They never chose safety over greatness and perhaps it is this wonderful quality that unites them — which drew a filmmaker without a known passion for dance to tell the story of a ballet dancer. At one point during our talk I asked Mr. Fiennes impulsively “Do you ever make things easy for yourself?” The answer you can work out for yourself.
Finally, I’d like to commend the Cairo Film Festival and its new president Mohamed Hefzy for having picked ‘The White Crow’ to showcase during the festival’s 40th edition. And for awarding Ralph Fiennes with an honorary prize for his career, by pointing out that the star “represents the spirit of an artist.” And Fiennes for accepting his award by thanking a festival held “in an extraordinary city, possessing an extraordinary spirit.”
‘The White Crow’ is a masterpiece of a movie that film and dance lovers alike can agree upon and watch, side by side. And then, once finished, yearn to watch again — and again.