Yury Arabov's screenplay is based on a quasi-historical event. After becoming ruler of the Golden Horde (or "tsar of tsars" in the English subtitles) by killing his older brother, Khan Janibek (Innokenty Dakayarov) desperately seeks the approval of his imperious mother Taidula (Roza Hairullina), who literally shares his throne. He grows more desperate when his mom suddenly goes blind. He calls on healers from all his domains, and beyond, to restore her sight, and he's quite unforgiving when they fail. We've already seen that Janibek is fascinated by the magic, or the idea of magic, but he's disgusted when the tricks behind illusions are revealed, kicking the crap out of one too obvous charlatan.
Where shamans, fakirs, etc. have failed, what about the Christian God? Catholic friars were in the throne room on the night Janibek took power (and apparently thwarted an invasion of France), but he looks closer to home, to Orthodox Muscovy, where it is said that the Metropolitan Alexei (Maxim Sukhanov) has the power to heal. The khan summons the priest to his capital with a simple deal: heal Taidula or Moscow will be razed to the ground. With one companion and a two-Tatar escort, Alexei -- who like many miraculous healers fears the sin of pride if not the very power within him -- reluctantly crosses the steppes to Janibek's court. Things start well when he crosses a gauntlet of fire without batting an eye, but he has no more success with Taidula (with whom he has a tantalizingly vague history) than the others. Something about Alexei's humility impresses Janibek just the same -- but not too much. He orders the metropolitan spared so he can return, on foot and in rags, to Moscow, in order to see it burn. He assigns a seemingly faithful retainer, Timehr (Fedot Lvov), to make sure no harm comes to the old man until the day of doom.
Alexei's failure has destroyed his self-esteem if not his faith. He can't bear to return to Moscow, instead joining a slave caravan back to the khan's city, where he survives the selection process only through official intervention. The metropolitan is put to work tending a fiery brick furnace while Janibek waits for him to break. To speed the process, he sets a quota of his co-workers to be chosen at random and killed each day. Alexei offers his life in someone else's place, and when his offer is rebuffed the full horror of the situation sinks in. He allows his clothes to catch fire, but his fellows beat the flames down and put him out in the rain in an impressive POV tracking shot. Left to die or live, Alexei raves in agony, still begging God to take his life instead of anyone else's.
What follows is anticlimactic only because The Horde has seemed to be a religious epic, yet ultimately denies us the presumed epiphany of a payoff. Alexei survives the night and wakes to find Janibek prostrating himself before him. Taidula has regained her sight and the khan has given Alexei the credit. The epiphanic payoff I was expecting was our view of the moment when Taidula is truly healed, but Proshkin and Arabov may have withheld it deliberately. Because the moment of recovery isn't shown to us in miraculous trappings, but is only reported to us (as it would have been in Greek tragedy) we can speculate that Taidula's trouble cleared up naturally, and that Alexei had nothing to do with it, whatever Janibek believes. In effect, the moment is a triumph of Janibek's faith in Alexei, but the tragic irony, from a Christian perspective, is that the healing saves Taidula and saves Moscow, but it doesn't save Janibek. He allows that Alexei has worked a wonder, or a miracle if you will, but that doesn't lead him to God/Jesus as a Christian would hope. Instead, in his last moments on screen he's still childishly fascinated by any purported wonder, enthusing over an Indian Rope Trick and playing with a new toy while his fate is being settled. You don't have to be religious to get the point and appreciate it as you would the premises of any fantasy film.
The Horde is an ambitious picture with impressive production values, and it justifies your time even if it seems to skid to an end fairly abruptly. The acting is solid, with Sukhanov and Dakayarov sharing top honors as a more complex variation on the Moses-Rameses act. A prize winner at the Moscow Film Festival, it's a fascinating window into Russia's self-image as an often-martyred yet divinely favored nation.