Sergei Karandashov: The Wanderer (Strannik, 2005)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2007


According to the blurb that advertised Sergei Karandashov’s (b. 1964) The Wanderer in theaters, the film is “the story of the tragic fate and spiritual cleansing of a young Russian” (“Kinoteatr ‘Zhovten'’”). Karandashov (Fig. 1) worked as an actor and director in amateur theater (Cheliabinsk) before entering the Department of Art History at the Russian Christian Humanities Institute (St. Petersburg) in 1988. He went on to work under Aleksei German, Sr. at Lenfil'm’s Studio of Experimental Film and acted as a director’s apprentice on German’s controversial Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998). Since 2000, Karandashov has directed several documentary projects, including The Gift (Dar, 2002), and his debut feature film, The Wanderer, received the Grand Prize at the Pacific Meridian festival (Vladivostok, 2006). The Wanderer has also attracted the attention of high-ranking officials; Sergei Dar'kin, the governor of the Primorskii region in Vladivostok where Pacific Meridian is held, praised the film for its spiritual depth and for the way it illustrates man’s search for his place in the world: “The winning film poses important questions—Who are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going? And the search for answers to these questions is not simple” (“Rossiiskaia kinokartina”).

The Wanderer narrates the story of Fedor, an itinerant who models his life on the monastic code (although he is not a monk) by engaging in prayer and fasting. He is taken in on the verge of death by an aging hermit, Father Illarion, who gives Fedor spiritual guidance and cares for him. [1] On the same night that Fedor is reprimanded by the local police for squatting in an abandoned building, Illarion is found murdered, his eyes gouged out as icon painters were blinded in Medieval Rus'. Even after relocating to a nearby town and befriending the ailing Vladik, the film’s young narrator, Fedor cannot escape visions of Illarion’s face: these images appear to him as the same extreme close-up of Illarion’s sunken eyes and wrinkled forehead (Fig 2). Initially, Fedor finds in Vladik a spiritual companion, as the young boy also hears voices and respects Fedor’s abstemious lifestyle. After some time in the village, however, Fedor grows disillusioned with the world and its vices, and plans to avenge Illarion’s death. As he is about to draw his knife on the man whom he believes to be Illarion’s murderer, he instead picks up a bucket of ice water and pours it over Vladik’s head (Fig. 3). This crude baptism (Fig. 4) sends Vladik into the hospital and Fedor leaves town for good, resuming his life of wandering.

In order to find inspiration for The Wanderer, Karandashov himself became a wanderer, traveling for two months throughout the Russian provinces in search of real life hermits and mystics. The entire cast, with the exception of Vasilii Pichik [2] and Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia, is comprised of individuals whom Karandashov and his team met on their journey. In preparation for the role of Fedor, Karandashov even asked Pichik to become a hermit himself and asked that the actor live in a World War Two-era bunker for two weeks. After two days, however, Pichik was plagued by nightmares of mutilated bodies chained to the wall beside him and had to leave the bunker.

The narrative of The Wanderer is structured by Vladik’s voiceover, in which he recounts the details of his brief relationship with Fedor. The film also includes six animated selections from Fedor’s personal diary, which reveal the details of the devastating fire that spawned his spiritual awakening as a young man (Fig. 5). These diary entries take the form of brightly colored animation sequences, similar to the crude drawings of a child (Fig. 6). The transitions from the dark color palette of the body of the film to the vivid colors of these sequences make the viewer constantly aware of his own act of seeing, in the same way that the low volume of the film’s soundtrack reminds the viewer of the limits of his own hearing. Such appeals to the senses run throughout the film, and the viewer is constantly offered conflicting visual and aural clues as to the source of Fedor’s mystical inclinations. On the one hand, The Wanderer can be read as a profoundly theological and philosophical film: a tale of the spiritual maturation of a gifted young boy, Vladik, under the guidance of Fedor, whom the film’s other hermits call “the blessed one.” On the other hand, the viewer can choose to see the character of Fedor as an eccentric vagrant who is not blessed but mad (he does not say anything particularly illuminating in the film), and Vladik as a troubled young boy. The Wanderer offers narrative and aesthetic evidence for both these readings, as the film fragments, blends, and obscures sensory stimuli in order to impede any single notion of truth. Karandashov’s film substantiates both a rational and a metaphysical explanation for Vladik’s and Fedor’s hallucinations, leaving the viewer to choose which source to accept.

In Vladik’s case, the dichotomy is most apparent in the opening shots of the film. Vladik’s voiceover begins: “I hardly remember the time before I started hearing voices. I wasn’t afraid of them, I simply lived with them.” Vladik not only claims the ability to hear voices, but notes that he has an acute sense of sight with which he “studies the device of the world.” Just as the use of sensory metaphors are abundant in philosophical discourse (Augustine, for instance, likened the human ability of divine contemplation to that of vision), The Wanderer posits vision as the faculty with which Vladik sees God in people. After being offered these profound opening statements, however, it is soon revealed that the object of Vladik’s fine-tuned gaze is actually a woman undressing in an adjacent apartment—an image that appears crude in relation to Vladik’s mystical account of his existence. Similarly, when Vladik discloses that his sense of hearing is the most attuned of all his extraordinary faculties, the viewer must come to terms with the fact that the content of the voices he hears is nonsensical, barely audible, and sounds more like a fuzzy radio broadcast than messages from a higher power. [3]

Similar antinomies are found in the actions of Fedor, as The Wanderer juxtaposes Fedor’s claims of prophesy with the illogical nature of his hallucinations and with normative human behavior. This is apparent as Fedor, unshaved and dressed in rags, stumbles over the tilled earth and digs with his hands in search of potatoes while a passerby on a bicycle stops to watch the amusing spectacle (Fig 7). Just as the viewer has dismissed Fedor as a fool in the face of society, the bystander gets on his bicycle and rides away, disappearing and reappearing for a split second as he moves out of the frame. If this transgression of physics has convinced the viewer of Fedor’s holiness, however, it would be premature: the camera quickly cuts to Fedor as he rolls on the ground with a single potato, laughing madly and thanking the vegetable for “saving him” (Fig. 8). In this single sequence of shots, Fedor is presented as both gifted and deranged, a paradox reconciled only in the character of the holy fool. A similar inconsistency is presented during Fedor’s vision of God, in which the sky grows dark and a booming voice demands that he “stand up straight!” (Fig. 9). The ominous sky and thundering voice are then quickly replaced by the image of a helicopter darting across the sky, leaving doubt as to whether Fedor’s experience was the vision of a mystic or the misinterpretation of a hysteric.

The Wanderer offers two diverse readings of its protagonists, the first of which is the belief of the director himself: namely, that Fedor and Vladik are instantiations of Russian spirituality and of the excessive questioning of the Russian soul. As Karandashov notes, the viewer can relate to Fedor and Vladik because “in each of us there exists the image of a wanderer” (“Rossiiskaia kinokartina”). Alternatively, the viewer can choose to accept the second, and equally plausible, set of visual and aural clues offered on screen: that the Russia presented in The Wanderer is not the place of divine wisdom or the locale of a modern-day Sergius of Radonezh, but that this space is a spiritual wasteland in which helicopters pass for divine illumination and the local vagrant is mistaken for a prophet. Ultimately, the film offers no clear answer and does not reconcile these dissimilar accounts: Fedor the prophet and Fedor the madman exist side by side, just as the final scene of the film depicts red and yellow paint in a river—colors that exist in stark contrast to the dark water and do not mix with it (Fig 10).

Alyssa DeBlasio
University of Pittsburgh


Notes

1] According to Karandashov, the character of Illarion is based on Pavel Florenskii (1882-1943), the religious mystic/philosopher who retreated from the world in pursuit of neo-Platonism and mystical Orthodoxy (Shugailo).

2] Pichik won the Governor’s prize for best actor at the Pacific Meridian festival (Vladivostok, 2006).

3] Fedor’s auditory hallucinations are equally nonsensical―for example, “Can-da-gar. Like a mouse. Mouse in the ferroconcrete jar with spiders.”


Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. On Christian Doctrine. NY: Liberal Arts P, 1958.
German, Aleksei. Khrustalev, My Car! Centre National de la Cinématographie and Goskino, 1998.
“Kinoteatr ‘Zhovten'’: 22 Oktiabria.” Argumenty i fakty v Ukraine (9 Dec. 2006).
“Rossiiskaia kinokartina vpervye stala obladatelem Gran Pri kinofestivalia “Pacific Meridian” vo Vladivostoke.” VL.RU (12 December 2006).
Shugailo, Tat'iana. “Sergei Karandashov nashel svoikh geroev na krestom khode.” Novosti (12 December 2006).


The Wanderer, Russia, 2005
Color with animation, 90 minutes
Director: Sergei Karandashov
Screenplay: Rita Margo, Mikhail Konval'chuk, and Sergei Karandashov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Art Directors: Aleksei Zubarev, Aleksandr Zhuravlev, and Gavril Lubnin
Editing: Raisa Lisova
Cast: Vitalii Pichik, Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia, Tolia Kloch'ev, Petr Kozhevnikov, Anatolii Dubinkii, Maksim Krivoborodov, Aleksandr Iuminov, Konstantin Bykov, Anatolii Buldakov, Sergei Sveshnikov, and Aleksandr Kamyshentsev
Producer: Viacheslav Tel'nov
Production: SDF (Studio of Documentary Film, St. Petersburg) with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

Sergei Karandashov: The Wanderer (Strannik, 2005)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2007

Updated: 10 Jan 07