Aleksei Muradov: The Worm (Cherv', 2006)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2007
Names are not important in Aleksei Muradov’s film The Worm, which takes its title from the term for a malicious software program that uses computer networks to replicate itself and in the process often surreptitiously harvests or alters files of information from its host computers, but which follows the ambling journey of a protagonist whose name is eventually revealed to be Sergei. As a crucial skill in the code-writing repertoire of computer hackers, worms are a significant manifestation of the dangers that globalized networks of information entail and their spread indicates the complexity of digital networks. In relation to naming the motifs of Muradov’s film, however, or in terms of identifying its essential qualities, the use of such a specific technical term as the film’s title is deceptive but accurate. The film does not concern itself with the implications of hacker culture and it is not interested in exploring the domain of cyberspace. In fact, for a film that invokes a hacking term, it achieves a remarkable feat since it does not even contain a single “screen shot,” that is, an actual image of a computer screen. Rather, the film imposes a pedagogy of viewing that visualizes the effects a worm can have on the organization of information and thus equates a viewer’s state of mind with the operating system of a computer in order to replicate the protagonist’s mental state of confusion.
The film ostensibly depicts an individual on the run at a time when the promises of anarchic freedom are receding and the state bureaucracy begins to reassert its control. But through a process of visual conditioning, The Worm develops an interesting conception of subjectivity and offers an almost graceful reflection on memory through a subject matter that could easily lend itself to a formulaic exercise of the paranoid mystery-thriller as a genre. The film follows an idiosyncratic editing pattern that structures its overall narrative form and that demands considerable efforts of adjustment from the viewer. Throughout the film, rapid cuts to brief flashes of old photographs are interspersed, as if to approximate the capacity for random access memory of a computer. Such rapid and disjointed juxtapositions also provide the transitions between scenes, so that repeated jump cuts announce a spatial or temporal leap, often as flashbacks to the memories of the protagonist. This means, however, that crucial fragments of visual information are embedded in rapid montage sequences or interlaced in epileptic and disjunctive cuts. While this asynchronous technique at first seems irritating and confusing, its deployment evokes a kind of heightened alertness and requires a gradual habituation on the viewer’s part. In this sense, the viewing process of the film itself becomes a reconstruction of a subjective state of mind as a decoding process by which scrambled or cryptic pieces of information need to be reorganized and integrated into a semblance of coherence.
A declaration of a “war on hackers” prompts Sergei, a handsome and versatile man in his thirties, to leave home. When Sergei hears a radio broadcast that announces hacker arrests in a joint US-Russian effort ominously code-named “Project Repozitari,” he destroys his laptop and packs his belongings in a knapsack. He visits his father to inform him that he has now surpassed him in rank because he has been promoted to colonel, yet he speaks dismissively of a “life of service.” Despite his promotion, Sergei tells his father that he will have to disappear for a while. Sergei takes to the road. He begins to drift on an aimless journey via trains and as a hitch-hiker, but he is evidently on the run from the militia and a sinister-looking government official who hints at vital “state secrets” and interrogates the people Sergei has come into contact with. Through flashbacks we learn that Sergei’s father was an officer in the Soviet Army and that Sergei has apparently followed him in his footsteps, even though his talents were multi-faceted and he had artistic inclinations. On his journey, Sergei encounters a number of characters, all of whom attempt to follow different suggestions on how to live one’s life and are trying to find meaning in a chaotic world. With his charming manners and an uncanny psychological ability to read people, he is able to adjust to each of them skillfully and carefully, while he remains an utterly enigmatic cipher to them. Nonetheless, he is tortured and pained by his own memories and considers suicide. Eventually he ends up in Vyborg, where he meets an old hacker buddy to whom he reveals that he had infiltrated their group as an agent. He becomes attracted to his buddy’s neighbor, Inga, a tough and combative woman who works as bodyguard, even though she was trained as a ballet dancer and was educated in French and English. Sergei joins a collective of boat makers who are building a wooden sailing boat. One night, Inga is savagely beaten and Sergei takes her to the hospital. When he hears that his father has been killed, he calls the police to turn himself in. During the interrogation, it is revealed that his father was killed by common criminals and that the corrupt state official who was hunting Sergei has killed himself. Sergei shows Inga his work on the boat. He has been sculpting the figurehead for the boat and she realizes that it has been made in her image, which will soon travel the seas.
This convoluted and enigmatic plot does not indicate the true achievements of the film. While the assault of visual and aural information and the claustrophobic use of space demonstrate Muradov’s formal indebtedness to his former teacher, Aleksei German, The Worm inverts and reconfigures the premise of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with its charming outlaw protagonist and experimental playfulness into a bleak assessment of disillusionment and loss. Paradoxically, however, this disillusionment becomes a source of strength. The film is an impressionistic catalogue of fragmented memory shards and iconic references, where flashbacks to the 1980s are accompanied by Cuban songs and the partisan anthem “Bella Ciao,” Che Guevara posters and the Russian flag hang in the same room while “The International” is intoned, and German World War II helmets are used as ashtrays. “Do not gossip,” warns the famous poster from 1941. Rapid photographs of people now long dead suggest the brutal realities of change. Such detailed references and formal devices might be misunderstood as mere postmodern citations, but here they serve to invoke a sense of potential through a shared history of suffering. It is not ideology that provides a coherent framework, but the communal experience of training and perseverance. Through physical dedication, the delicate skills that Inga has learned in ballet school can mutate into bodyguard fighting techniques and Sergei’s discipline, acquired first as a young pioneer and then in his father’s army, continue to serve him under any circumstances. This emphasis on training and physical conditioning, therefore, extends as well to the spectator, who is forced to reassemble and make sense of the fragmented pieces of the film. The Americans may by now “exert global control while we have squandered everything,” as a police officer glumly asserts at the end, but the endurance of suffering is in itself a heroic act.
Daniel H. Wild
The Worm, Russia, 2006
Color and b/w, 100 minutes
Director: Aleksei Muradov
Screenplay: Andrei Migachev and Igor' Talpa
Cinematography: Robert Filatov
Production Designer: Grigor Ter-Mesropyan
Music: Boris Bazurov
With: Sergei Shnyrev, Anastasia Sapozhnikova, Vadim Demchog, Dmitri Persin, Aleksandr Naumov, Galina Danilova
Producers: Anton Malyshev and Andrei Malyshev
Aleksei Muradov: The Worm (Cherv', 2006)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2007