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 Issue 13 
9 Sept

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Poster for 37th Karlovy Vary Film Festival KARLOVY VARY
Musing gangsters
Russian films at the
37th Karlovy Vary International
Film Festival—Part III

With the collapse of the rigid certainty of Soviet Communist rule, films that explore violent crime and the lives of mafiosi have been become frequent and popular with Russian audiences. Andrew James Horton looks at a selection of such works on show at Karlovy Vary.

Sergei Bodrov's Sestry (Sisters, 2001)Family ties
Sergei Bodrov's Sestry (Sisters, 2001)

Sergei Bodrov Jr first attracted attention playing a Russian soldier in the Caucasus Kavkazskii plennik (Prisoner of the Mountains, 1996), directed by his father, Sergei Bodrov Sr. Since then, his name has become closely allied to family connetions, albeit in a rather sense. Bodrov Jr is now most famous for the role of Danila in the two Brat (Brother) films by Aleksei Balabanov. And to capitalise on that success, he has now directed his first feature, which also has a sibling-based title, Sestry (Sisters, 2001)

Sveta, 13 years old and interested in rifle shooting, is less than enamoured with her step father, Alik, and his mafia connections, and lives in poverty with her grandmother rather than have a luxurious existence on the back of ill-gotten gains. Dina, her younger half-sister who has no such moral qualms, is not viewed with the same outright hostility but the relationship is nevertheless frosty. It's only when Alik's attempts to pay off debts backfire and the half-sisters are forced to go on the run together to avoid being kidnapped that a relationship starts to blossom.

After fending admirably well for themselves, the baddies start to get the upper hand. But Alik turns up at the last minute to save the day. Fearing for his life, Alik leaves for the West, and takes his family with him. Sveta, though, is unable to leave her country or her grandmother, least of all to live with a man she still despises, and the new relationship with her step-sister is cut short.

Sestry owes a great deal to Brat more than its similar title. Both films fit firmly into the gangster genre, currently very popular in Russia, and exploit concerns about lawlessness and disorder within a plot that stresses family values and love of ones country. Watching Sestry, you get the distinct impression that if Bodrov was an American citizen he'd vote Republican.

Sergei Bodrov's Sestry (Sisters, 2001)Launching his directorial career on the back of his best-known acting performance may seem somewhat desperate. Yet Sestry is actually a rather better film than both Brat installments. Bodrov's handling of his young actors is assured, and the plot is a deft balancing act of pacing—always an essential element in a crime thriller. Moreover, Bodrov's homespun philosophy on crime and the primacy of family bonds is considerably less objectionable to Balbanov's increasing tendency to nationalism, sexism and racism in exploring the same subjects.

Nobody could call Sestry a philosophical film, and it's closer to vaccuity than it is to profundity. But it's unusually well-made and highly watchable and has reaped awards from juries as a result—the St Anna Award at Moscow, the Ecumenical Jury prize at Cottbus and at Karlovy Vary it picked up the Freedom Prize, awarded to films from former Communist countries. Not everyone was happy that a film with such limited intellectual aims picked up a prize with so lofty a title, and some of the representatives of countries that had lost out on the award were rather peeved. But it's fair to say that no other film in the East of the West section, from which the Freedom Prize winner must be picked, could be as universally appreciated as a work of cinema.

Ekaterina Kharlamova's Memorabilia--sobranie pamjaatnykh veshchei 
(Memorabilia--A Collection of Memorable Things, 2001)The many colours of memory and perception
Ekaterina Kharlamova's Memorabilia—sobranie pamjaatnykh veshchei (Memorabilia—A Collection of Memorable Things, 2001)

In modern-day Russia, if someone dressed impeccably in a long black coat and who you've never seen before comes up to you and asks you to work for a group of people who have vast power and are about to reassert their presence in society, you'd have to be suspicious of their intentions. In Ekaterina Kharlamova's Memorabilia—sobranie pamjaatnykh veshchei (Memorabilia—A Collection of Memorable Things, 2001), this is what befalls Evgeny Stogov, a young actor (played with a gentle but firm screen presence by Romulad Makarov) currently preparing for a production of Hamlet who pretends he's more distinguished than he really is. The mysterious group want Evgeni to be a public face for their activities, and it's an offer he's told he shouldn't refuse. Evgeny asks for time to think, consulting his girlfriend, who spookily turns out to have been in on the organisation all along, and a ghostly presence in his mirror to try and find the answers to the dilemma.

Ekaterina Kharlamova's Memorabilia--sobranie pamjaatnykh veshchei
(Memorabilia--A Collection of Memorable Things, 2001)As Evgeny contemplates the issue, Kharlamova takes us into stylised, colourful tableaux, representating processes of thought and perception and the gap between what Evgeni is and what he pretends to be. The film's big joke, played out across three endings in the capricious spirit of the whole feature, is that the messenger does not represent the mafia at all and may not even exist. It's not quite worth the 96-minute wait to find out the identity of those behind the offer and whether Evgeni takes it up. However, the half whimsical, half philosphical approach and interest in games and the game-like structures of life is a novel and refreshing style, and is reminiscent of the rather more convincing but still under-rated Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii (Poisons or a World History of Poisoning, 2001), Karen Shakhnazarov's film that played in competition at Karlovy Vary last year.

Memorabilia is a beautiful and intriguing film, though, and a charming exploration of the potentially cliched topic of memory and perception. It's also a work that has much individuality without being offensively egotistical. It's not a film to take the world by storm, but this is only Kharlamova's second feature and, if she can mature from this current command of cinematic language, her future films could well be sparkling gems of humour, observation, fantasy and reflection.

Aleksandr Strizhenov and Sergei Ginsburg's
Upast' verkh (Falling Up, 2002)The gloss of revenge
Aleksandr Strizhenov and Sergei Ginsburg's Upast' verkh (Falling Up, 2002)

The heroine in Aleksandr Strizhenov and Sergei Ginsburg's Upast' verkh (Falling Up) is dissatisfied. She wants a new chauffeur, she wants new clothes, she wants a new fireplace for her house. Married to an important politician, she has failed to see the sparkle of life that endless expenditure of wealth should bring. When her husband leaves on business, in passing muttering something about someone being wanting to take his life, she gives full reign to her frustration and calls in a hunky mason to fix her interior decor in her Moscow flat with a stunning view of the Kremlin.

Upast' verkh progresses in this sub-"shopping and fucking" manner for an hour before the directors start to ratchet up the tension and make something of the inner angst of these lost characters. All is not what it seems with either the husband's sudden departure, the best friend's listening ear or the machoman builder as a forgotten past starts to bubble to the surface and violent revenge . It's a Mike Leigh Secret and Lies-style confrontation of repressed animosities transferred from lower-class London East-enders to a rather less interesting selection of Moscow's brattish and self-obsessed elite.

The interest value of Upast' verkh, which gets its name from a tarot reading that the wife has, comes a teeny bit late in the day to make it fully satisfying, but it just about saves the film and lifts it into the watchable category. However, the lipgloss and the dresses are all there are to keep you absorbed for the opening section of the film.

Konstantin Murzenko's Aprel' (April, 2001)Escaping fate
Konstantin Murzenko's Aprel' (April, 2001)

The laconic, eponymous hero of Konstantin Murzenko's Aprel' (April, 2001) has been set up and finds himself accused for of a crime he didn't do. The boss of this smalltime criminal seems sympathetic gives him a roll of dollars and a gun and tells him to get himself a girl and tells Aprel' to kill the man who betrayed him. After finding himself a girlfriend, a prostitute who has never slept with anyone, he sets about his task, to which he has no affinity or inclination.

He does a runner on the hit job he's been told to do, and before running goes to visit his girlfriend, who also works the nightshift as a nurse. By chance, he runs into the man he was to kill, who is involved in a baby-snatching racket. The latter's hold-up goes disasterously wrong, partly foiled by the perpetrator's own incompetence and partly by Aprel's efforts to save the day. Police marksmen surround the hospital, yet Aprel' still manages to avoid all awaiting fates—death, imprisonment or descent into the depths of the criminal underworld.

Aprel', so the bumf for the film says, has been described by Russian critics as a "poetic horror" and an "exacting moral piece." The film is also as an attempt to combine the American gangster genre with the Russian philosophical style. There's much to reflect on here given the extraordinary changes in Russian society since the death of Brezhnev. The sudden flux in social and political values has raised questions about the the position of the individual and the nature of free will against the face of capricious historical circumstances.

Essentially, all mobster movies in Russia are obliquely drawing, however unknowingly or cheaply, on these concerns. Aprel' does this rather more consciously than other films, but not necessarily with a better result. The mobster plot is totally unconvincing while the existential angst is rather shallow and unengaging. Somehow, Hollywood film noir of the 1940s seems to be more mentally engaging than Murzenko's tinkering with the style, and he can't pull of the reinvention of an American standard in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut brought a Gallic sensibility to film noir.

Nevertheless, the possibilities are intriguing. Andrei Tarkovsky was successfully able to convert science fiction novels into the essence of Russian spiritual-philosophical film-making, and you would think that somebody should be able to do the same for a gangster flick. This may be the case, but I for one am not putting money on Murzenko pulling it off.

Valery Rybarev's Prikovanni (The Chained One, 2002)What to do with the violence
Valery Rybarev's
(The Chained One, 2002)

It is, perhaps, rather cheeky to include Valery Rybarev's Prikovanni (The Chained One, 2002) in a set of articles collected together under the title "Musing gangsters." There's almost no crime element in the film, yet the story draws on many of the strands that make the mobster genre so successful.

In the Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, even though he knew he would be punished, as he wanted to protect the mortals on earth. Zeus later punishes him by chaining to a rock in the Caucasus, where an eagle eats his liver.

Pavel, a former army officer, is also chained and is in the process of having his liver eaten up as a result of trying to protect his mortal nation. He eakes out a quiet existence as a driver in a quiet region of the Baltic coast. Despite the uneventful life he leads, he's haunted by his demons: the woman he loved and left, the wars he fought in and the disintegration of society in general. He drinks heavily and becomes so violent when drunk that he handcuffs himself so that he can't do any damage to himself or others.

His inner angst is interrupted by the arrival of Anna, an attractive young violinist who rents one of his rooms. Pavel starts to believe that Anna can bring love and warmth into his cold and tortured existence. But the wounds inflicted by the past are not so easily covered over. After a drink-fuelled night, Anna leaves and in a letter explains her real reason for interupting his life. Pavel heads off after her to seek forgiveness and to make ammends for his cowardice and retreat in his previous love.

Prikovanni is not a film of action, but a film of slow character exploration. Rather than set its violence in a social context (which by definition makes it a "crime" film, since such actions are not legal in this context), Rybarev places the violence in the context of the internal world of the individual—it's not a problem "out there"; it's inside us. Thus, when Rybarev discusses the disintegration of society, it doesn't come over as a conservative poster campaign for greater law and order and family values or an amoral and exploitative interest in the underwolrd. Rybarev sees social disintegration as something that results from our inability, on an individual level, to deal with our emotional scars and something which causes individual existential problems.

It would be unfair to say of most crime films, such as Sergei Bodrov's Sestry (Sisters, 2002) and Aleksandr Strizhenov and Sergei Ginsburg's Upast' verkh (Falling Up, 2002), they don't attempt to do this. It's simply that they don't succeed particularly well at it.

Prikovanni has none of the pizazz or sparkle that have made Sestry an award-winning film. It could, indeed, be critised for being overly wordy and intellectualised. For that reason, its unlikely to pick up a string of prizes. While Prikovanni may not get—or even deserve—awards. It does, however, deserve to be watched.

Andrew James Horton

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Russian films at the 37th Karlovy Vary festival
Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for other journals, has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox and is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust to research the restructuring of central and southeast European image markets.

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2017


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