Director: Bill Morrison
Screenplay: Bill Morrison
Starring: Mikhail Zharov
Country: USA
Running Time: 81 min
Year: 2021
BBFC Certificate: E

* Please note – though this isn’t a film with a traditional narrative, one might take several points made in my review as ‘spoilers’. I found it hard to talk about the film without mentioning these facts, so ploughed on regardless. If you’re particularly sensitive about going into a film as cold as possible, you might not want to read this review without first seeing the film.

In a nutshell, Bill Morrison is a filmmaker who specialises in repurposing archival material, often of degraded quality, into avant-garde works of cinematic poetry or unusual documentaries that use this old footage as a jump-off point for an exploration into where they came from or what they represent. He’s been doing work like this since the early 90s to great critical acclaim.

Almost exactly 5 years ago, Second Run released Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time on Blu-ray and DVD. Curious, I gave it a watch and enjoyed the film a great deal (as my 4-star review will attest – So, when Second Run announced they would be following that up with a Blu-ray release of Morrison’s The Village Detective: A Song Cycle, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Like Dawson City, The Village Detective centres around the discovery of discarded film reels. However, whilst the earlier documentary looked at a huge collection of cinematic treasures that had been preserved underground, The Village Detective is kicked off by the hauling up of just one film by Icelandic fishermen dredging up lobsters off the coast of their home country. In fact, it was only a partial film, as several of the reels were chucked overboard by one fisherman who hadn’t initially considered their value.

The find was brought to Morrison’s attention by the late, great composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and its unusual nature and location, being in between East and West-dividing tectonic plates, was enough to spark the director’s interest.

The reels ended up being of the 1969 Russian film, Derevenskiy detektiv (a.k.a. The Village Detective or Rural Detective). This wasn’t an ancient, lost, silent film as Morrison often works with, but he uses the reels’ find as a starting point for an exploration into the life and work of Derevenskiy detektiv’s star, Mikhail Zharov.

Zharov was huge in Russia, the equivalent of Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart in the US (according to one of the film’s contributors). He was no stranger to controversy though, getting in trouble with the authorities due to some family connections that were against the powers that be. Due to this, and the fact Zharov’s lengthy career coincided with some pivotal moments in Russia’s history, Morrison also touches on the nation’s troubled past. The director often uses clips from other Zharov-starring films to tell his and his nation’s story and these occasionally lead to other tangents.

We are always led back to Derevenskiy detektiv though and this provides the backbone to the film. As usual, the materiality of film itself plays an important part and the degradation caused to the reels from their many years under the ocean is on full display, in all its strangely bewitching nature. Unlike many of his other films though, Morrison chooses to blend the ‘found footage’ with a remastered print of Derevenskiy detektiv, most notably the soundtrack, so we can follow segments of it. This approach also allows us to see more of where the film goes in the end, as the found reels were incomplete.

The very fact a remastered version of Derevenskiy detektiv exists shows how an interesting twist is put on things here in that you gradually learn that the film found in the depths isn’t particularly interesting in itself. It isn’t a lost or particularly notable piece of cinematic history. It’s a relatively new film (for Morrison, at least), which isn’t critically acclaimed but was very popular with audiences in Russia.

On top of celebrating the tangible nature of film itself, Morrison’s tangential treatment of the material shows that any film can spark interest, reflecting or reminding us about great figures in cinema or history. As it’s put at the beginning of the film (using an archival interview with Zharov), it looks at “how art gets woven into life and how life gets woven into art”.

Mention must also be made to The Village Detective’s score. David Lang composed this, using largely accordion due to the instrument being central to Derevenskiy detektiv’s mystery. It’s not an instrument often used for scores, beyond stereotypical French scenes, but Lang puts it to great use, crafting music that’s suitably haunting.

All that said, however, despite being an interesting and strangely beautiful film, I didn’t find myself quite as transfixed with The Village Detective as I was with Dawson City. With Morrison delving into many different avenues and with the central find leading to a knowingly underwhelming conclusion, it didn’t hit me in the same way. The Village Detective is perhaps more accessible than Dawson City though, due to its length and inclusion of some less degraded clips. As such, I’d say this more recent film would make a better starting point for those curious about delving into Morrison’s work for the first time. Those, like me, who’ve already started that journey, might find themselves slightly disappointed though.


The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is out on 26th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Run. It’s difficult to judge the picture quality due to the degraded nature of much of the material, but it looks suitably natural and the new material is sharp. The audio is strong too, particularly the music.

Plenty of special features are included:

– The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021) presented from a 4K master, supervised and approved by director Bill Morrison.
– Newly filmed, exclusive interview with Bill Morrison
– Bill Morrison’s short films:
– Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 (2014, 40 mins) – Blu-ray premiere
– The Unchanging Sea (2018, 30 mins) – Blu-ray premiere
– Sunken Films (2020, 11 minutes)
– Let Me Come In (2021, 11 minutes)
– Trailer
– Booklet with new writing on the film by writer and film historian Peter Walsh
– 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C)

Morrison discusses the film in a 16-minute interview. He talks about how he was intrigued by the story in how, whilst the film wasn’t ‘lost’ or rare, its discovery reflected the story of its star. He decided to make a film that explored the actor’s fascinating life and how it fit into Russia’s troubled history during his career. He also discusses his process. It’s a vital piece to watch to appreciate where Morrison is coming from.

Most welcome in this release though are over an hour and a half’s worth of short films from Morrison. These all complement the main feature nicely and provide further treasures for those who enjoyed it.

‘Beyond Zero: 1914-1918’ takes a variety of archival footage shot during WWI to vividly depict this horrifying period of history. The material is very powerful and this is further accentuated by an often intense but viscerally emotive score composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Some of the film material is degraded and the distortion caused is often befitting of what is being portrayed. It’s an excellent film.

‘The Unchanging Sea’ begins by playing out ocean-bound silent film clips with little damage but this sets in eventually, often coming in at wonderfully appropriate times, such as a brutal wash of decay just when a boatful of men head off to sea. Later, there’s a wonderful moment where a man first lays eyes on a beautiful woman and they both seem to burst into flame through the shape of the distortion. This is all further heightened by Michael Gordon’s powerful score, which builds to an epic climax throughout the half-hour running time.

‘Let Me Come In’ is a simpler short that has a beautifully distorted and decayed silent film clip played out over a specially written operatic piece by David Lang, sung by Angel Blue. The lyrics are a little repetitive, but the music fits the material nicely, giving the film a haunting quality.

‘Sunken Films’ opens with the final film shot of the RMS Lusitania, which sank not long after the footage was taken. We also see clips from an animated film made the year after, depicting the ship’s destruction by a German torpedo. Included are facts surrounding and accounts of the incident, which add further poignancy to the material. A film reel was found when the wreckage was later salvaged too. This leads to a look at a couple of different film reel discoveries at the bottom of the ocean. It’s a fascinating little film.

The booklet largely consists of an essay by Peter Walsh. In this, the writer and historian describes what happens in The Village Detective: A Song Cycle, expanding on details along the way. In reiterating much of what I’d already seen in the film, it didn’t always seem a vital analysis, but it does help you fully soak in and appreciate what Morrison achieved.

So, it’s a wonderful package, all around, even if the main feature didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The shorts were a particular pleasure to work through, so it gets my recommendation.


The Village Detective: A Song Cycle - Second Run
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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