Aleksandr Veledinskii: Alive (Zhivoi, 2006)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2007

Staying Alive in the Age of Blockbusters: War, Youth, Popular Culture, and Moral Survival in Alive

Russians want to be everything at once [Russkie khotiat byt' vsem srazu].
Aleksandr Veledinskii [1]

When discussing Alive in an interview, Aleksandr Veledinskii, an accomplished scriptwriter and television director who launched his full-length feature career with Russian (Russkoe, 2004), admitted that for him “the two films are similar in spirit” as cinematic studies in Russian national character; he even considered titling his second feature Russkoe-2. [2] Russian, based on Eduard Limonov’s autobiographical fiction, told a post-Stalinist coming-of-age story, in which Edie (Andrei Chadov), a burgeoning poet from a working-class neighborhood in provincial Kharkov, negotiated his path to an authentic personal identity amidst widely diverging environmental stimuli, ranging from social conformity and criminality to transcendent creativity. If the poet-hooligan’s spiritual alive-ness amidst the materialist(ic) culture of the late 1950s was an essential component of russkoe (Russian-ness), zhivoi’s deeply felt personal responsibility before his ideal community of war comrades, Veledinskii suggests, should strike the viewer as inherently Russian in the otherwise spiritually stagnant atmosphere of Putin-era civilian mercantilism, emotional pragmatism, and moral complacency. Produced with partial support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, the film nevertheless challenges the official discourse about the Chechen war, pointing out its morally devastating impact on Russian society. In its pursuit of an alternate conception of patriotism and of a more participatory and responsible basis for national cohesion, the film manages to overcome some staples of the dominant cultural rhetoric that continues to employ war as the most effective trope for resolving society’s pressing problems. In setting their probing examination of contemporary Russian society in the context of the Chechen war, however, the filmmaker and producer Sergei Chliiants (Petr Buslov’s Bimer [Bumer, 2003] and Bimer 2 [2005], Veledinskii’s Russian, and Kira Muratova’s The Tuner [Nastroishchik, 2004]), fall prey to some of the most conventional aspects of the war master plot.

In Alive, the former Chechen-war contract soldier Kir (Andrei Chadov) returns to civilian life after losing his leg in battle. His encounter with the world outside the close-knit army brotherhood proves disappointing and traumatic: a major in charge of the veterans’ post-war transition (Andrei Rapoport) not only makes profit off the injured soldiers and the families of those killed in action, but also evades his responsibility of personally honoring and counseling the relatives of the dead. In a fit of rage, Kir commits a samurai-like act, killing the corrupt major with a saber that he bought as a gift for an army friend who saved his life. Unable to break the sad news to the widow of his perished commander (a task previously relegated to him by the major), the inebriated and lonely Kir wanders into a rainy night. In what looks like a search for human contact, Kir tries to embrace some chance girls in an underground pass, for which he gets beaten by their male companion and is left lying on the cement floor.

The following night scene at a busy highway, in which Kir is hit and abandoned by a foreign-made SUV while hitching a ride, serves as an even more poignant metaphor for the returning veteran’s painful head-on encounter with personal and institutional corruption, unashamed profiteering, and societal indifference to his physical and psychological trauma. It is significant that Kir addresses his desperate call for help in the surrounding nocturnal void to his loyal army comrades, patsany. This vocal appeal to the army brotherhood marks a transition to a somewhat altered reality: from now on Kir will be closely accompanied by his two guardian angels―that is, his deceased army friends, Igor' (Vladimir Epifantsev) and Nikich (Maksim Lagashkin), who lost their lives while saving his. Unbeknownst to Kir, these fallen warriors are not merely figments of his troubled imagination: they are spending with him the last two of the forty days allotted to their souls in the world of the living prior to appearing before a higher judgment. The fact that Kir―with the exception of drunks, children, and artists―is the only person who can see these fully armed and uniformed companions, makes the viewer question the protagonist’s own status among the living on his resumed journey to his provincial home town.

The vibrant and demonstratively non-sentimental but emotionally meaningful exchanges, packed with puns and pop-culture references, between Kir and the accompanying duo, as well as their exceptional emotional and psychological rapport, stand in sharp contrast to Kir’s awkward and frequently pained real-life relationships. His loving mother’s (Nelli Selezneva) inquiries about his inner trauma are too straightforward and overemotional to produce reciprocity. His former schoolmates are preoccupied with themselves or with his physical incompleteness. In his long absence, his girlfriend Tania (Viktoria Smirnova), a small-kiosk owner, has been forced to accept protection services of another man. And, in what is perhaps the heaviest blow for Kir, in Moscow, his former fellow soldier who carried him out of the fatal battle on his back, has turned into a dedicated family man for whom familial peace and quiet are more important than the disrupting anxieties of a wartime friendship.

During all these meetings, the ghosts of Igor' and Nikich not only act as mediators, facilitating Kir’s readjustment to family and friends, but also provide the opportunity for moral reappraisal and emotional healing not readily afforded by the living. In their capacity as Kir’s conscience, they help him come to terms with his repressed feeling of guilt for unintentionally causing their death. They also tackle such complex issues as what they were fighting for as contract soldiers, what constitutes a legitimate act of military violence, and, finally, what awaits them in life after death. The more time Kir spends with Igor' and Nikich, the more involved he becomes with their world, while at the same time gradually withdrawing from civilian reality. By the time the otherworldly companions’ stay on earth comes to an end and they have to abandon Kir, he has not yet found inner resources to repent his murder of the major. For him, the corrupt officer epitomizes the degeneration of an ideal community symbolized by the brotherhood of fallen soldiers.

Just as soon as Kir loses his sympathetic guardians, he meets another spiritual helper, this time an Orthodox priest (Aleksei Chadov) who senses the protagonist’s moral disquietude and agrees to guide him on his way to the cemetery to remember his perished friends. At this point, Kir’s detachment from the world of the living is so dramatic, that reuniting with his deceased comrades becomes his sole mission. In the course of the night spent with the priest, however, Kir is finally able to establish his first full-bloodied human relationship outside the confines of his ideal army community. The film highlights a number of meaningful parallels between the soldier and the priest. The most significant one is probably the fact that both have chosen a profession that involves service rather than working for financial reward. The two characters’ nearly mystical connection is further reinforced by the filmmaker’s decision to cast the twin brothers Andrei and Aleksei Chadov in these key roles, as though by coming to know Father Sergei, Kir gains access to his inner, spiritual self.

The repentance for the major’s murder takes a particularly serious effort on Kir’s behalf and marks a major metaphysical threshold on his path to God. The film depicts this critical moment as Kir’s physical fight with the priest, in the course of which this spiritual warrior metaphorically, as well as literally, wrestles for his namesake’s sinful soul (Kir is the protagonist’s army nickname, his real name is Sergei). In an equally symbolic episode, in which Kir wanders around the cemetery looking for his friends’ graves and summoning them with the soul-wrenching cry of “Patsany!,” the priest looks for him calling out “Sergei!” as if trying to keep him among the living long enough to confess his sin, thus saving his soul.

Having found place in his heart to mourn the murdered major, Kir is finally released from this world and can now rejoin Igor' and Nikich. He rushes out of the cemetery to the highway familiar from an earlier scene, where the viewer sees his death in a hit-and-run accident for the second time. As a flash of lightening briefly illuminates a roadside sign wishing travelers a safe journey, we see Kir’s own grave at the cemetery where Father Sergei is praying for the dead. In addition to the Russian soldiers, his Orthodox prayer includes Kir’s late Tatar comrade-in-arms who was a Muslim, as well as the corrupt major. Igor' and Nikich come to get Kir and the three soldiers wander through the snowy expanses of the Caucasian mountains on their way to a higher judgment.

As the above summary suggests, Veledinskii and Chliiants set out to make a non-traditional―at least by post-Soviet commercial standards―war film, in which they claim to have avoided action scenes “consciously and as a matter of principle.” Unlike Fedor Bondarchuk’s blatantly patriotic blockbuster about the Soviet-era war in Afghanistan, Company 9 (9-aia rota, 2005), Alive incorporates war scenes only in the form of the protagonist’s occasional flashbacks to his final battle. These flashbacks, moreover, never show the enemy or the military confrontation as such, thus for the most part avoiding the vilification of the Muslim insurgent that is common in contemporary Russian cinema―be he Chechen, Afghan, or Arab.[3] Instead, they zoom in on the soldiers’ spirit of mutual understanding, support, and total dedication to each other. Even in its war scenes, therefore, the film highlights the “action of human souls” (ekshn chelovecheskikh dush) as opposed to Company 9’s physical action loaded with special effects and adrenaline. [4] This is not to say that Alive shuns such components prominent in recent Russian blockbusters as a star-studded cast; a popular soundtrack filled with music hits by Viktor Tsoi, Garik Sukachev, Spleen, and Civil Defense; the inclusion of ghosts, ghost-like characters, and parallel worlds―as featured in Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), and Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat, Frankenshtein, 2004); rough language; titillating sex scenes; and creative incorporation of elements of television and popular culture. In the words of critic Andrei Arkhangelskii, the movie updates the vocabulary for discussing patriotism, extending the discussion of this serious concept to younger, mostly entertainment-oriented, audiences. [5] Regardless of its relative success in doing so, however, this low-budget film’s box-office returns of $3.2 million constitute only a fraction of Company 9’s $23.5 million.

The Russian audience’s viewing preferences signal the society’s unpreparedness and/or unwillingness for a more invested discussion of its moral state and of the Chechen war as a persisting national trauma. Not only the narrative form for discussing patriotism, but also the concept of patriotism itself reveals a new dimension in Alive as compared to the dominant Putin-era war discourse. Rather than sacrificing their lives for the proverbial Motherland, those characters who stay most alive in Alive embrace their responsibility to other individuals as their most important patriotic sentiment. While the film’s depiction of the cohesive military brotherhood as an ideal community recalls a Socialist Realist blueprint for society as a military regiment, the authors de-emphasize the ideological component of war, highlighting instead its psychological impact on soldiers who experience a sharpened sense of moral awareness in their daily encounters with death. As the lyrics of the “Civil Defense” song playing in the film go: “there are no atheists in the trenches under fire.” [6]

By contrast, Russian society at large strikes the viewer as emotionally insensitive, insular in its bourgeois complacency, morally complicit, and ultimately unpatriotic. It prefers to keep the traumas and anxieties of its geographically marginal war at bay while at the same time impatiently relegating any moral responsibility for what happens there to paid security and military professionals. The major preempts any criticism from Kir by reminding him that he was generously paid for his services. With the financial transaction completed, this representative of the Ministry of Defense (as his institutional affiliation clearly reads on his business card) wishes no further trouble from the righteous vet. The major’s death at Kir’s hand, while not justified, is depicted as inglorious for an officer: the murder scene takes place at the major’s home in a garage filled with homemade preserves and the viewer sees tomato juice pouring out of broken pickling jars instead of spilt blood. Kir’s prewar girlfriend comforts him by saying that he could work and save for a superior, German-made artificial limb. Even Kir’s wartime friend has embraced Putin’s offer of stability with no questions asked. Like the protective middle-class mother of two in My Stepbrother Frankenstein, Slavka is determined to shield his family from the anxieties of war emanating from a Chechen vet, even if that means terminating their friendship. More generally, the society just won’t notice the issues that are psychologically very real (and even embodied for Kir in the ghost-like figures of Igor' and Nikich), unless they take a more blatant, physical, shape of, say, a wooden leg. The moral groundlessness of the Chechen war becomes plainly evident from the lyrics of another song featured in the movie, which pragmatically states the campaign’s objectives as “the preservation of the state’s territorial unity and of national oil wells.”

Every sign of the inconvenient war is banished from the Moscow cityscape. The prestigious Red Square cemetery is reserved strictly for state leadership and bears no evidence of national mourning for the Chechen-war dead. A hi-tech Moscow billboard advertising posh consumer products sends messages of financial success and personal prosperity through such slogans as “Catch the moment” and “Fate has chosen us.” When, at a peak of emotional alienation and loneliness, Kir cries out to God, he sees the illuminated spire of the Ostankino TV tower―the omnipotent contemporary shaper of human minds and souls―piercing the dark sky.

In his second feature, Veledinskii continues to explore the particularities of Russian national character. Similar to Russian, where the qualities defining the “broad Russian soul” span from criminal-style rebellion to instinctual religiosity and poetic creativity, Alive searches for its protagonist’s Russian-ness in the wide range of values associated with the traditionally opposed figures of a mercenary and a missionary. Even though Kir, Igor', and Nikich all served as contract soldiers, the film explains their career choice by poor economic conditions and lack of worthy job opportunities in their provincial hometowns, rather than by their desire to make a fast buck. Kir’s impoverished mother lives in a disintegrating house and his girlfriend has to sell vodka and cigarettes to importunate male customers in order to make a living. The only careers open to Kir back home, it seems, are those of a killer and a bodyguard; but since there is presently nothing to guard, the bodyguards spend all their time getting drunk together. In these circumstances, army service offers a promise of a more socially fulfilling occupation. In their capacity as paid soldiers, Kir and his army mates make highly moral decisions at war even when such decisions may undermine their own chances for survival.

On the other side of the equation, Father Sergei’s readiness to serve those in need reverberates with the military brotherhood’s selfless honor code. Kir’s two desperate screams for help in the film―“Patsany!” and “God!”―are answered respectively by Igor' and Nikich and by the priest. Not only does Father Sergei take over from Kir’s departed companions as his spiritual guide, but he also carries him to the place of his spiritual salvation in the cemetery on his back, as if reenacting Slavka’s heroic wartime feat of saving the wounded Kir from physical death. Later, in order to break through to Kir’s spiritual core that would allow him to repent the major’s murder, Father Sergei engages him in a physical fight that echoes Kir’s earlier critical confrontation with Igor' and Nikich on a train, as a result of which he came to accept his full responsibility for their deaths.

A less convincing example of the (this time literal) conflation of the military and priestly virtues in an ideal character, is the soldiers’ mention of a former Afghan-war officer who allegedly took vows as an Orthodox monk and who can now be seen in Chechnya praying for Russian soldiers. This latter-day holy warrior is a namesake of the legendary fourteenth-century monk Peresvet, who, according to the fifteenth-century “Tale of the Battle with Mamai,” took up arms and gave his life for Russia’s liberation from the Mongol yoke. But such an obvious evocation of a Russian Christian hero fighting the infidel enemy, while expected of the Kremlin’s imperial rhetoric surrounding national holidays and understandable in the lubok-like feature-length animations, feels out of place in the more introspective Alive. [7]

The film’s weaker points come from some of the same elements that determine its strengths as a critical commentary on the conveniently forgotten war in Chechnya. If the romantically rebellious criminal and the poet-hooligan in Russian were, for the most part, non-ideological figures, the images of the soldier and the priest in Alive cannot be as easily separated from the respective state and church dogmas that they traditionally represent.

Even though Kir repeatedly asserts that money is not what he fought for, the viewer never finds out what exactly motivated him voluntarily to extend his term in the army―that is, aside from his (contradictory) admission that he wanted to save for a wedding. In the contemporary viewer’s mind, the nature of Kir’s “service” extends beyond his deeply felt loyalty to his wartime friends to include his advancement of the political agenda pursued by the central government. In fact, Kir’s self-righteous indignation at the major’s assumption that he went to war for money suggests that the corrupt officer offended the protagonist’s patriotic sentiment. Later in the film, Kir substantiates the audience’s assumptions about the more conventional nature of his patriotism when he says that he opposes Chechens because they are fighting Russians, or ours (nashi). When he nearly quotes Putin by saying that Chechens “need to be wiped out,” the idea of a certain kind of patriotism solidifies in the viewer’s mind, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions to the contrary. [8] In tying their discussion of patriotism to the Chechen war, Veledinskii and Chliiants inevitably revert to such Soviet ideological clichés as a popular hero sacrificing his life for his Motherland in a deadly combat with a national enemy. In the same breath Kir asserts that “one can learn a thing or two” from Chechens. If they fought someone other than Russians, he says, he would have joined the war on their side. In another episode, Igor' accuses Nikich of having thrown a grenade into a civilian yard in Chechnya before actually checking if armed insurgents were hiding there. Igor' believes that their unresolved status as wandering souls is their punishment for that injustice, but Nikich is not quite convinced: his preemptive strike, he believes, saved their lives. These awkward efforts at political correctness, coupled with contradictory formulations of patriotism, reveal the filmmakers’ uncertainty about how to handle the military conflict in Chechnya objectively and fairly.

The film’s association of spirituality with Russian Orthodoxy is equally problematic and contradictory in a story that addresses an interethnic and inter-confessional conflict. It is noteworthy that Aleksei Chadov, who plays Father Sergei, felt the need to consult a spiritual advisor on whether an Orthodox priest could pray for a Muslim. Upon acquainting himself with the script, the advisor concluded that the film’s situation allowed for that. [9] It would be interesting to hear if the same priest would think it is acceptable to pray for the Caucasian crooks (derogatorily called khachiki in the film) who try to sell Kir’s girlfriend those unpopular Chinese noodles. After all, in the end, Father Sergei does pray for the corrupt Russian major. Veledinskii sends a similarly confusing message when, having proudly noted that the film’s Muslim viewers were touched by the inclusive prayer at the cemetery, he highlights “the international note” of this scene: “What matters is not what faith you profess, but what you are fighting for.” (Khoroshilova) Given the ambiguity that surrounds the question of what the soldiers in the film really fight for, the non-Christian soldier’s readiness to “wipe out the Chechens” could be as good a qualification for being included in an Orthodox prayer as would be his embracement of the more universal ideals of personal responsibility and honesty. In this respect, Alive only slightly departs from the latest official rhetoric distinguishing between good and evil Chechens/Muslims (or between loyalists and terrorists) that most recently surfaced in such films, as Evgenii Lavrent'ev’s Countdown (Lichnyi nomer, 2004) and Vitalii Lukin’s The Breakthrough (Proryv, 2006).

The portrayal of female characters is another disappointing gloss in the film that undertakes to explore the Chechen war’s psychological and moral toll on Russian society, especially because women’s grass root organizations, such as Soldiers’ Mothers, are a prominent social force advocating military reform, human rights, and peace in Chechnya. Kir’s mother and the widowed wives of Kir’s army friends are depicted as passive victims of pressing economic circumstances and/or bureaucratic exploitation by military authorities. Kir’s girlfriend alone seems to take a more active role in her destiny by enlisting the authority of the special police serviceman to protect her and her business. Other female characters in the film never rise above the stereotypical images of the Madonna (Father Sergei’s pregnant wife), the nurturer (the military hospital nurse Olia), or the whore (Kir’s chance acquaintance in the train and faceless prostitutes in the army). In gender and ethnic terms, therefore, the search for national identity in Alive remains a prerogative of the Russian male protagonist.

More generally, however, Veledinskii’s attempt at an open-minded look at contemporary Russian society is a welcome trend in commercial Russian cinema. The fact that the filmmaker leaves answers to many of the discussed issues open-ended―“Ask me something else” [Sprosi chto-nibud' polegche] is a response to most of the complicated questions raised in the film―stimulates independent thinking on the part of the audience. The viewer must also decide whose side to take when the more judgmental and self-critical Igor' disagrees with Nikich on issues ranging from legitimacy of certain acts of military violence to their opinions of Kir’s girlfriend. In this respect, the film’s contradictory and confused moments may enhance public discussion of some of the most morally and ideologically murky issues. Named a socially significant project of the year by the Russian Media-Group, Alive received a prize for best script at Kinotavr, where it was also recognized by the Russian Film Critics’ Guild award.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Bowdoin College


Notes

1] Aleksandr Veledinskii, “Ia prosto liubliu eto slovo―russkoe’” (interviewed by Elena Kutlovskaya), Iskusstvo kino 9 (2004): 53.

2] Oleg Zintsov, “Blokbaster o zhizni dukha” (interview with Aleksandr Veledinskii), Vedomosti (20 September 2006).

3] Most recent examples of Chechen-conflict films based on the conventional Socialist Realist master plot include Aleksei Balabanov’s War (Voina, 2002), Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii’s Anti-killer 2 (2003), Evgenii Lavrent'ev’s Countdown (Lichnyi nomer, 2004), and Vitalii Lukin’s Breakthrough (Proryv, 2006).

4] Aleksandr Veledinskii, Maksim Lagashkin, “Alive: Press-release”; available online at http://www.trubnikova.com/k-Jivoy.shtml.

5] Andrei Arkhangelskii, “Tipa voina,” Ogonek (1-7 May 2006).

6] In the film, the song “About a Fool” stops one couplet short of this line. In his Vedomosti
interview, Veledinskii specifically expressed a regret that time constraints did not allow him to include this couplet in the film. The lyrics that do sound in the movie, “a fool is wandering around the forest, the fool is looking for those who are more foolish than he,” are actually a modified version of a Russian proverb that would certainly be recognized by Russian viewers: “a dead man is wandering around the world, the dead man is looking for those who are more dead than he.”

7] Iurii Kulakov’s Prince Vladimir (Kniaz' Vladimir, 2006), for example, grossed $5.2 million during a four-week run in the spring of 2006.

8] Kir actually uses “Czechs” instead of “Chechens” (“Czechs need to be wiped out” [Chekhov, konechno, mochit' nado]), military slang for Chechen men, which may be further narrowed down to armed fighters.

9] Tat'iana Khoroshilova, “Spasite nashi dushi” (an interview with Aleksandr Veledinskii). Rossiiskaia gazeta (29 September 2006).


Alive, Russia, 2006
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii
Scriptwriter: Igor' Porublev, Aleksandr Veledinskii
Cinematography: Pavel Ignatov
Art Director: Eduard Galkin, Sergei Tyrin
Cast: Andrei Chadov, Maksim Lagashkin, Vladimir Epifantsev, Ol'ga Arntgol'ts, Viktoriia Smirnova, Aleksei Chadov, Aleksandr Robak, Ekaterina Volkova
Producer: Sergei Chliiants
Production: Pygmalion Production, with the participation of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema of the Russian Federation and KVID Film Company

Aleksandr Veledinskii: Alive (Zhivoi, 2006)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07