Andrei Proshkin: A Soldiers’ Decameron (Soldatskii dekameron, 2005)
reviewed by Julie Draskoczy© 2006
The contemporary Russian film industry often seems like a family affair.  Andrei Proshkin, son of famous director Aleksandr Proshkin,  represents a case in point. The military comedy-thriller Soldiers’ Decameron is Proshkin-fils’ third attempt at a feature film: his previous works include Spartacus and Kalashnikov (Spartak i Kalashnikov, 2002) and The Play of Butterflies (Igry motyl'kov, 2004). While both of Proshkin’s previous films dealt with the lives of contemporary teenagers, his third feature centers upon a different, but still youthful, demographic—the military. Just as the adolescents portrayed in his earlier films struggled in their environments and longed to flee them, so do the frustrated soldiers in Soldiers’ Decameron yearn to escape the provincial military town where they are stationed. Army life appears chaotic, senseless and surreal, and all of the soldiers pine for dembel', Russian slang for discharge from the military. The word is ubiquitous in the film, both orally (in the informal conversations among soldiers) and visually (in the graffiti etched on walls and windows). The letters scrawled in most of the graffiti, “DMB,” signify not only the acronym for dembel', but also refer to the name of a popular two-part Russian film of the same name directed by Roman Kachanov in 2000.
Despite all the trappings of a typical suspense film—including canned, scary music; haunting by a red-eyed ghost; and eerie, fog-covered vistas—Soldiers’ Decameron is not a traditional thriller. Sex—not mystery—is the true driving force behind the film’s action. The suicide of the Tatar soldier Khaitov (who is assumed to be the ghost haunting the army base) is supposedly spurred by his love for Raika, a blonde telephone operator. While discussing the need to curb the sexual appetites of the soldiers, the army officers joke about putting medicine in their food but eventually attempt to alleviate their need for physicality by forcing the men to go on a marathon run.
The film opens with the doughy-faced Shura (Aleksandr Agafonov) and his fantasy of making love in a hayloft to a general’s blonde daughter. Subsequently he dreams of ripping off a series of aprons from a young girl without ever quite reaching his sought-after prize, and later he admires a woman’s behind as she reaches into a cabinet. While Shura is clearly one of the focal points of amorous longings in the film, he is not the only vehicle for representing eroticism. The core of the film’s narrative centers on Boria (Alexsandr Iatsenko), a former military student, and his infidelity. Boria cheats on Natasha, the elder daughter of lieutenant-colonel Lukin, with her younger sister, Marina, while Natasha is away at school. Upon Natasha’s return, Boria finds himself in a predicament. Seemingly unable to decide between the two daughters, his quandary reaches a crescendo during a late night rendezvous in the bathhouse where Boria is forced to face the two sisters simultaneously. Lukin finally discovers the love triangle and chases Boria out of the bania, claiming he will kill the young flight school dropout.
In yet another romantic subplot, the soldier Gena Savitskii secretly brings stolen flowers to Vera, the wife of Lieutenant Panteleev. Vera assumes the flowers are coming from her husband until one night Gena arrives with tomatoes below her window. The warrant officer in charge of operating the greenhouse becomes maniacally frustrated about the constant theft of flowers, checking everyone’s hands for cuts from picking roses. Eventually, his fury reaches a feverish pitch and he moves all of the delicate plants into his bedroom. Gena remains the undiscovered culprit, and is forced to take tomatoes instead of flowers after the warrant officer’s safeguarding methods. Vera and Gena have a brief exchange while they eat the red fruit, and Vera poses in a fancy dress for a Polaroid picture—a photograph that Gena later treasures as he is en route to Chechnya.
Although the sexual emphasis in the film at first appear to be a simple cliché about horny soldiers, the romantic encounters also allude to a more subtle aspect of the film—the tension between black and white. The Tatar soldier who committed suicide at the beginning of the film is dark, whereas the women in most of the sexual fantasies are pale-skinned and light-haired. Shura searches everywhere for his blondinka, but ironically finds only a much less satisfying form of non-reality—the ghost that is supposedly the lost soul of the hanged soldier. Gena’s Vera is a blonde beauty, and the dead mother of the dark-haired sisters Marina and Natasha, oddly, is also a blonde. Yet black and white do not remain so distinctly marked from one another. While the irascible ghost is presumed to be a dark-skinned Muslim solider, ghosts are traditionally conceived as being white. The white soldiers may eventually have to combat dark Chechens, yet darker-skinned Muslims figure among their ranks. The sex fantasies of the soldiers often feature blonde women, yet the two main female characters, Natasha and Marina, are brunettes. While the camera shows a dark and mysterious landscape inhabited by grey roaming dogs, white also remains prominent in the cinematography. Marina and Natasha walk through white hanging sheets (alluding overtly to the stereotypical image of a ghost) and sit upon tall piles of white laundry. As the white soldiers play soccer, they joke about dark Muslims. The tension between light and dark, reflected both visually and on the level of narrative, is one of the ways in which the film moves beyond a child-like portrayal of military life.
Perhaps one of the reasons the film remains somewhat unsatisfying stems from its unanswered questions. The title itself represents the most obvious of such inconsistencies. While “decameron” implies ten, the action of the film does not take place over ten days, nor do any of the characters compose groups of ten. The exact political implications of the film also remain clouded. Set in the mid-1990s, the film takes place just before the first Chechen war, when a resolution to the conflict still appeared possible. Perhaps colored by later events and the ongoing second Chechen war, the film’s political message remains ambiguous. In addition, the political commentary moves beyond the conflict in Chechnya. In one of the many shots with graffiti, Boria crosses out the word “capitalism” and replaces it with “socialism,” alluding to the failure of the system(s). Yet any serious commentary of this nature seems out of place in such a light-hearted comedy.
Rather than force the audience to confront any specific political views, Proshkin focuses on portraying the army in its humorous and ridiculous aspects. But while the antics and sexual escapades of the soldiers—as well as the constant appearance of the leaf-covered, red-eyed ghost—may initially appear funny, there is a darker side to all of this frolicking. The soldiers are unsatisfied and bored with military life; they often make racist jokes and, of course, fantasize about women. Day to day existence in the army is depressing rather than funny. By the end of the film, all of the soldiers and officers are busy with preparations to go to Chechnya. The film’s last shot is of the main characters in the back of an army jeep, still discussing the idea of dembel'. Sadly, the contemporary viewer understands that these soldiers’ discharge will never really occur—death will come before their dembel'. The dogs that repeatedly appear in the film, usually alluding to the presence of the “ghost,” seem smarter, or at least luckier, than the humans. Although they chase the jeep of soldiers for a few moments, they eventually stop dead in their tracks, watching the vehicle disappear into the distance. They know instinctively this is a path they should not follow.
In the end, it is fantasy that preoccupies the soldiers. As long as they have their forms of reverie, daily life on the provincial army base seems more varied and interesting. This explains why dreams and imagination figure so prominently in the film. Shura is constantly dreaming of beautiful women, just as the warrant officer turned horticulturalist is plagued by nightmares of his stolen goods. Even the ghost is a type of fantasy. While everyone assumes it is the unhappy soul of Khaitov haunting the army base, it is actually Vera’s half-crazed husband, lieutenant Panteleev. He is presumed to have become a bit cuckoo after his experience in Afghanistan, an element of the film that alludes to the more ghastly side of war. The suspense of the film falls flat with the discovery of the true identity of the ghost. No longer able to sustain any element of the fantastical, it is only appropriate that the film would suddenly switch to the imminent departure for Chechnya. After an hour and a half of the surreal, the film makes a final move into historical reality.
University of Pittsburgh
1] Family relations in the contemporary Russian film industry include many parent—offspring pairings: Sergei and Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Sr. and Aleksei Jr. German, Andrei and Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, Andrei and Egor Konchalovskii, Aleksandr and Andrei Proshkin, Andrei Smirnov and Avdot'ia Smirnova, Petr and Valerii Todorovskii.
2] Aleksandr Proshkin’s films include The Cold Summer of 1953 (Kholodnoe leto piat'desiat tret'ego, 1987), To See Paris and Die (Uvidet' Parizh i umeret', 1993), The Black Veil (Chernaia vual', 1995), The Captain’s Daughter (Russkii bunt, 2000), and Trio (2003). He is best known, however, as the director of multi-episode films and serials made for television, including Inspector Gull (1979), Mikhailo Lomonosov (1986), and most recently Doctor Zhivago (2006).
Soldiers’ Decameron, Russia, 2005
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Andrei Proshkin
Screenplay: Gennadii Ostrovskii
Camera: Iurii Raiskii
Art Director: Igor' Morozov
Music: Pavel Karmanov
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Andrei Gurkin, Aleksandr Agafonov, Kamil' Tukaev, Mikhail Porechenkov, Iulia Vysotskaia, Elena Liadova, Klavdiia Korshunova
Producer: Sergei Kozlov
Production: Protel Studios
Andrei Proshkin: A Soldiers’ Decameron (Soldatskii dekameron, 2005)
reviewed by Julie Draskoczy© 2006