Like Ingmar Bergman's amazing film "Shame" (produced in the same year as "The Red and the White", 1968), Miklos Jancsó's masterpiece evokes the vast and breathtaking panaroma of civil war on a small scale. No crashing, thundering armies here, and no heroes -- just murder on both sides. No plot, no easy resolution, no ideology -- just the tension and menace of a venomous snake uncoiling in the sun.
At the center of the movie is a group of Hungarian volunteers who have come to Russia to fight for the Bolsheviks, either in 1919 or 1920. Caught in an abandoned monastery by a battalion of the counter-revolutionary, pro-Tsarist White Army, the Hungarians are let loose, in an apparent gesture of mercy, then hunted down while they scramble along the banks of the Volga futilely trying to escape. No mercy is shown to anyone on either side. Some of the Hungarians eventually meet up with a Red Army battalion, which is wiped out in a quixotic, unforgettable mini-battle with the Whites along the river. From beginning to end, Jancsó squeezes every last drop of "beauty" out of war. Moreover, his refusal to romanticize the Bolshevik struggle in the Russian Revolution led to this film being banned by the Soviets for years.
Visually, "The Red and the White" is absolute eye candy. Jancsó's genius, like Bergman's, is that he recognized the value of silence. As E.E. Cummings put it, "Nothing can surpass the mystery of stillness." There are whole scenes of this movie where the crickets and the grass say more than the people involved. And arguably, the Volga is a major figure in the film, the spectacular and flowing symbol of Mother Russia, a snake more lasting than violence and one that will outlive every blood-letting combatant her banks.
This is a dreamy and labyrinthine masterpiece. Get it. Five stars.