Russian cinema spotlights social and political ills
By John Varoli
The nomination of Pavel Chukhrai’s film "The Thief" (Vor) for best foreign film at the Academy Awards is just the latest proof that Russian cinema is bouncing back after years of depression.
Hardly a week now passes without a new premiere. The past year has seen the release of more Russian films than the previous three years combined. And, in a field that has until now been dominated by the Moscow studies, this has been a sharp increase in the number of films being produced in St. Petersburg. This is not just a matter of quantity, but also of quality. A new generation of creative talent is coming into its own and learning now to survive and even prosper in a market economy.
A significant feature of many of these new films is their readiness to confront pressing political and social problems. Though Russia is the motherland of Dostoyevsky, who gave humanity insights into the human soul decades before Freud, Soviet Utopia provided little encouragement for writers who wanted to probe human psychology. Class consciousness was considered paramount in explaining human behavior. This began to change only with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the second half of the 1980s.
Several films made in the past year — "Brother" (Brat), "The Thief" (Vor), "The Time of The Dancer" (Vremya tantsora), and "Schizophrenia" (Schizofreniya) — typify this trend toward social and political criticism. A theme common to all four films is the pervasiveness of the cult of violence in Russia today.
In Soviet times, the repressive police apparatus, state censorship of the mass media, and a cradle-to-grave system of indoctrination combined to create a degree of tranquillity in Russian society not found in most other countries. Since the collapse of the USSR and the relaxation of state controls, Russia has been afflicted by ethnic conflict and rising crime. These social ills are fueled by a pathos of violence and a philosophy of "might-makes-right" that have permeated society. People today appear far more inclined than before to settle their differences or promote their interests through the use or threat of force. All the four films discussed here focus on this theme.
"Brother", directed by St. Petersburg director Aleksei Balabanov and produced by the film company "STV" (a new studio that grew out of Lenfilm, using Lenfilm people and equipment), was both the most popular film of 1997 and the one that received the greatest critical acclaim. Made on a shoestring budget of $500,000, the film was technically primitive. But its raw look into the criminal world and the origins of criminal behavior earned it high marks with audiences and critics alike.
"Brother" tells the story of a young boy, Daniil, who leaves his village to live with his "successful" older brother — an assassin for hire — in St. Petersburg. Daniil eventually becomes involved in his older brother’s line of "work." Instead of becoming a just another hired gun, however, Daniil sees himself as a kind of Robin Hood, serving the people by rubbing out the evil bandits who prey upon them.
This Robin Hood image endears Daniil to the audience. He seems a "decent" Russian boy who, though he does distasteful work, nevertheless makes the streets safe for the common people. But then, just as viewers are about to take Daniil to their hearts, Balabanov shocks the viewer with a stark revelation of how Daniil has been corrupted by the work her does. His killing becomes a drug. His reliance on force to solve his problems spins out of control, which leads to his alienation from his friends.
As Balabanov told NTV after the film had its premier on Russian TV last November, "This film is my feeling of what is happening in life for a number of young men today. Daniil is the hero of our times. Whether he is good or bad is up for the viewer to decide."
"Vremya Tantsora," made by one of Russia’s most famous film duos, directors Vadim Abdrashitov and Aleksandr Mindadze (the former a Tatar and the latter a Georgian), chooses ethnic conflict as its main motif. The film is set in the 1990s, somewhere in the south of Russia. While the high mountains make it clear that the action takes place in the Caucasus region, we are not told where and when exactly the film is set.
The first hour and a half shows the life of Cossacks victorious in some recent local war. As part of their spoils, the Cossacks occupy the homes of the vanquished. The lead character is a Cossack dancer who everyone, even the indigenous Caucasian population, thinks is a "swell guy." His only "fault" is that he missed the war. He never got the chance to fight and now he is just a Cossack wanna-be who only dances the role in a musical ensemble. Lacking the cruelty needed to kill, the dancer is embarrassed before his Cossack buddies, because "real men" have no compunction about killing.
In the film’s final hour, a Caucasian doctor chased out of his house by the victorious Cossacks, returns to take revenge on the dancer for marrying his wife. She had left the doctor after he went off to war, because the experience of fighting turned this sensitive, learned man into a killer. All he now knows is how to take life, not to save it.
Pavel Chukhrai’s new film "Vor" (Thief), which was produced by NTV-Profit, offers the most sophisticated psychological analysis of the roots of the cult of violence in Russia today. After the film’s St. Petersburg premier last October, Chukhrai told Prism that his purpose in shooting the film was "to gain some insight into the childhood of those people who are now running the country; to understand what they went through, in what environment they were raised, and with what values. They were raised in a culture where violence and militarism were the values of the day."
Set in post-war, 1950s Russia, the film tells the story of Sasha, a fatherless six-year old boy. The film is told from Sasha’s point of view and in his own words as an adult. The main plot is about his mother, Yekaterina, and the man she loves, a thief, Tolyan.
The Russia we see is still in the throes of recovering from the war. Times are hard and cruel. At the beginning of the film, Yekaterina and Tolyan meet by chance on the train. He is young and handsome, decked out in a fine military uniform. She is a lonely young widow with a child to feed. Both his looks and his supposed privileged position as a military officer steal Yekaterina’s heart.
Instead of her life becoming easier, however, it becomes a living hell when she learns that Tolyan is a thief masquerading as an officer. Nevertheless, she cannot leave him. In post-war USSR, there are few men to be had; over seven million men were killed on the battlefield, to say nothing of huge civilian casualties. Yekaterina decides that life with any man, even a criminal, is better than none.
Her decision has drastic consequences for the film’s little hero, Sasha. From the first, his relationship with his new father is troubled. Throughout the first half of the film, little Sasha is haunted by the ghost of his true father; the one who died in the war before Sasha was even born.
As a stepfather, Tolyan is a bad influence in Sasha. Tolyan teaches Sasha how to fight and to steal. Tolyan is put in prison, and Yekaterina dies soon afterwards of a botched abortion. Sasha finds himself alone, and ends up in an orphanage. From there he leads a life of crime. Tolyan, the thief, has stolen Sasha’s mother, his childhood, and human dignity. At the end of the film, we see Sasha as an army officer fighting in Chechnya.
(Chukhrai said recently that he plans to change the ending of the film. Though he has not said why, the fact that many people were upset with the film ending in Chechnya
might be part of the reason.)
Tolyan can be read as a symbol of the Soviet system, which stole the lives of so many people, and warped those of the survivors. Tolyan himself jokes that he is the son of Stalin. While a whole generation of Soviet/Russian men were not literally raised by criminals, the USSR was often nicknamed Bolshaya Zona, the "Big Prison." And the experience of growing up in state that was, despite its low levels of recorded crime, inherently lawless and founded on coercion, has left deep psychological scars on its citizens.
Film director Viktor Sergeyev’s new film, "Schizofreniya" (Schizophrenia), produced by Lenfilm, was panned by many of the critics. With audiences, however, it has been one of the most popular Russian films of recent times.
In years to come, "Schizophrenia" may well be remembered as the film that best captured the age we live in — the age of bandit capitalism; of financial and bureaucratic "warlords"; and of shifting alliances among the oligarchy carving out their empires amidst the rubble of the Soviet one. What makes the film especially interesting is the fact that it is supposedly based on truth. Aleksandr Abdulov, the film’s lead who also co-authored the screenplay, told Prism that the film is based on a true story as told to him by a leading Russian criminal figure.
This political thriller describes the close ties between Russian criminal organization, law-enforcement officers, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and top government officials. The state, in the grip of powerful interest groups, shows no compunction eliminating its enemies. To quote from the film’s press release, "This is the story of how the System we inherited from the totalitarian past remains intact and continues to establish itself, destroying and maiming people’s lives. Sometimes, to show who’s boss and achieve its goals, it throws down the gauntlet to society."
The film recounts the story of Nemoi (the Mute), played by Aleksandr Abdulov, a convict recruited from prison by the FSB in order to carry out the assassination of Mr. Lazovsky, the country’s most influential banker who has presidential ambitions. Sergeyev told Prism that his film was not aimed against Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But the film itself makes it quite clear that the assassination is being carried out on behalf of the President. The FSB officer in charge of the operation tells Nemoi, "We [The FSB] serve the President, the Constitution and the people who voted for the President." Powerful stuff.
It’s one thing for political extremists to rail against the president, but a film made by a leading director and starring Russia’s most famous actors is a body blow at presidential dignity from the ranks of mainstream society. It would not be an exaggeration to call this a dissident film. Audiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg have tended to view the film as just another action movie. But audiences in regions of the country which are in opposition to the Yeltsin leadership have responded quite differently to the film and are promoting it "for their own purposes," according to Olga Agrafenina, the press officer at Lenfilm.
Schizophrenia’s all-star cast, featuring some of Russia’s leading actors — Aleksandr Abdulov, Aleksandr Zbruyev, Kirill Lavrov, Leonid Bronevoi and Armyen Dzhigarhanian — enhances the quality of the film and adds to its credibility in the eyes of the public.
The film’s title might appear puzzling, but Sergeyev’s message is clear and simple. Schizophrenia is the most common mental illness, one with a tendency to become chronic. Sergeyev thinks Russia is in danger of becoming stuck in the "bandit" stage of capitalism, hatched and fostered by the old Soviet oligarchy that has prospered through its own personal transition from "Communist" to "capitalist." Over and over again, Sergeyev seeks to demonstrate that the pull of Russia’s totalitarian past may be too strong to let the country evolve into a civil society.
John Varoli is a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and Bloomberg Business News. He has lived in Russia since 1992.
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