The first thing to know about Hard to Be a God is that it’s a visually astounding film. Aleksei German has filled every inch of his silvery three-hour epic with arresting detail. The second is that German, who made only six films during his lifetime, died before completing this long-gestating adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s science-fiction novel (his wife and son provided the finishing touches). The third is that it plays like a funhouse mirror reflection of the Middle Ages with nary a robot or spaceship in sight.
The action takes place on Arkanar, a backward planet that looks like Earth, except there was no Renaissance, and the people are crude, simplistic beings (cackling, crotch-grabbing, face-smashing). It’s a Bosch painting come to life. In their midst, an Earth scientist disguised as a noble attempts to encourage progress, but German’s style triumphs over the story by way of fluid tracking shots, characters who speak directly to the camera, and bizarre phenomena, like dancing chicken feet, that enter the frame for no discernible reason.
Logic melts away on this phantasmagorical trip into a fog-shrouded, mud-encrusted universe where Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev meets Hoban's Riddley Walker by way of Monty Python. Like its maker, it’s truly one of a kind.