Aleksei Mizgirev: Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2007

Heroes as Beacons of their Time: PliumbumBrotherHard-Hearted

Once upon a time we were taught in Soviet schools that there were “just wars” and “unjust wars,” “wars of liberation” and “wars of conquest”—that is, “good wars” and “bad wars.” But at the same time, we were never taught how to classify the wars that took place in the “peaceful spaces” of everyday life; we were not taught how to appropriate the victory trophies that we won in narrow corridors during the secret battles to find our place in the sun…

Aleksei Mizgirev's striking debut film Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007) tells the story of the mechanics of one such war, which is concealed under the cover of the visible world. A literal translation of the title would be “flint,” a symbolic paraphrase of the film's young hero, Antokha Remizov, just discharged from the army and frequently asserting in a manly way through the course of the film that his word is good as “flint.” He does not do this as some hollow-sounding gibberish, but as a precise expression of his promises. The demobbed soldier—as hard as flint—having recently served his time as a paratrooper in some “hot spot,” is offered a new field of battle for his survival in the capital of our Motherland. This battlefront will be clearly categorized by his new boss in his new place of service in the capital's militia, when he explains the new situation without beating about the bush and with military precision: “This ain't no broad, vet [dembel']! This is Moscow!” In other words, the new place of combat for the youthful provincial lad is the place of his childhood day-dreams, where heaven raised its tents. The MOSCOW in this film, with which the lad will collide, is a just common noun that gradually comes to designate not simply a city, but an enormous receptacle of hostile forces that oppose him and can destroy him without any pity.

How frequently similar plots appeared in earlier, Soviet films! “Similar” merely in the superficial events of the plot, when the most varied heroes would come to the capital from distant parts of the former Soviet Union in order to find a place in their new lives through honest labor. Naturally, far from everything was so simple in their actual lives and in that “wonderful” life. Yet we must concede that the social and ideological climate in the country allowed viewers to react with naïve faith to the attractive image of the capital that was created in the best films of that period. Take, for example, Georgii Daneliia's Walking the Streets of Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve, 1963; released 1964) or Vladimir Men'shov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979), which even convinced Americans of its “truthfulness.”

However, now—“for good or ill?” as is stated rhetorically in a Russian proverb—under the new conditions of so-called “free competition,” this very same capital is perceived by the young director as a hundred-headed enemy ready to destroy any uninvited outsider. In order to become convinced of the correspondence of this little-consoling cinematic image of the capital with the new reality, it is merely necessary to watch the news on television with some regularity and to follow the various (already a standard feature) reports on “catastrophic” events.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that Mizgirev's Hard-Hearted does not simply repeat the frightening, subversive, and criminal practices of the capital, which have already been touted by the mass media. It is the first film to trace the actual preconditions necessary for the appearance of a new type of hero-conqueror, who, because of the circumstances in which he finds himself, is prepared to fight for his place in the sun according to the rules of the game dictated to him by the “business world”; to figure out and psychologically to adapt to those rules, which, once he internalizes them, enable him not only to survive, but to succeed. The film confronts viewers with a new psychological type, formed by our times, who struggles to survive and conquer. Such heroes need only cold calculation, natural cunning, and even exceptional intelligence to play their hands correctly in the game and beat their opponent.

The hero of Mizgirev's film is generously endowed with all these qualities. While still serving in the army he was given the heartening assurance that “he'll be taught everything he doesn't know.” So his ripening in his “fruitful” field of activity occurs right in front of our eyes. He must subjugate this new reality, which is marked everywhere by a distorted and equally victorious new “citizen” consciousness that is far from possessing any pure, selfless ideas. His new experiences merely strengthen Antokha Remizov's fighting spirit; like millions of guys his age, he has nothing behind him but the army and his schooling in the tiny village of Al'met'evsk. But now his experiences will be increased by his collision with “peaceful reality,” in which, it turns out, the former soldier—hard as flint—will have to defend his interests. As one viewer of the film remarked with sadness: “So that's what it's like for our kids in today's world.”

* * * * *

At the start of the film, a train comes to a halt in one of the stations of “our dear capital, our golden Moscow,” as used to be sung in a famous Soviet-era song. But the very arrival of the train is already enveloped by the unfriendly tension of train station chaos. And on this train, Antokha Remizov, a simple Russian guy, arrives in “our golden-domed capital” and is at first disoriented by the chaotic train station crowd. But then, after passing through one of the gloomy and unpleasant underground pedestrian crosswalks by following the flow of human bodies, after showing his discharge papers to the vigilant militiamen, he finally ends up as a fully equal passenger on a Moscow bus—one of those buses that wend their way through the immense outskirts of the megapolis, built up with impersonal, identical houses that are indistinguishable from each other throughout the vastness of Russia.

This is a different Moscow, far from Red Square, from the marvelous architectural landmarks, exquisite boutiques, and today's uncountable church cupolas. Here there is nothing to attract the eyes of interested and rewarded tourists, just the pitiful facades of houses filled with “ordinary folk,” as they used to say in olden times. In the West, these kinds of neighborhoods are called “bedroom communities.” Our working people and pensioners fall into their restless sleep in such neighborhoods after a working day—but less frequently in bedrooms than on cots or fold-out couches in their “drawing rooms,” to put it bombastically. The film's visual landscapes arise from this externally impersonal space, which conceals not a few dangers.

The ecstatic outburst by the newly-arrived recruit, triggered by his first glimpse of the fringes of the Promised Land, sounds strange to the Moscow residents of this neighborhood: “Look! Look! That's just as in Al'met'evsk! O-o-o! Al'met'evsk! Al'met'evsk!” And his fellow passengers feel not the slightest softening kinship with the newly-arrived imbecile, with his provincial backwardness, as can be seen from their condescending looks. This condescension—if not outright animosity—will accompany Antokha Remizov's future steps through the Moscow jungles, debunking his myth of the capital's residents, which was expressed by one of Platonov's heroines: “the people who live in the center are simply something wonderful!” This turns out not to be true; it was just a flickering lie.

We discover that our hero did not originally come to the capital to conquer it, but because he was following the call of his heart, having fallen in love while in the army through his correspondence with Zinaida, his former neighbor in Al'met'evsk, not realizing that her letters to him were merely a school assignment to boost the morale of soldiers. After his discharge, he learnt that her parents had taken the “bride” of his dreams off to Moscow, where her father, according to rumors in Al'met'evsk, had set up his own “business.” This word is now magical, known throughout the vast old country or throughout “mighty Russia,” as one dreamy poet put it.

This new “businessman,” not being very far-sighted, meets his former provincial neighbor without any special joy, assuming that he simply wants to ride his coattails or to grub some dough, even though Antokha assures him that he has not come to him for assistance but to seek his daughter's hand in marriage, who by this time has become a student in Moscow. Antokha meets Zinaida on their first date in a café with a significant name—Megapolis— where she already spends time with her girlfriends like a real Muscovite. Admittedly, this Megapolis more resembles an old-time Soviet diner (stolovka), just as the outskirts of Moscow resemble Al'met'evsk and Zinaida more resembles that same provincial gal than one of the capital's babes. But none of this bothers Antokha, who is possessed by his love and his attempts to find a way to realize it. It is also clear to him that Zinaida's father's business is far from thriving since he is cleaned out by the cops who “protect” it. Antokha's youthful brains will figure out much more quickly than his former neighbor how one must defend one's business and one's principles, even at the risk of one's life.

So the former neighbor makes a mistake when he scorns Antokha's help, not realizing that he needs him to protect himself and his business from the very same kind of former provincials who have already managed to put on militia uniforms. Antokha not only sees the real field of battle more clearly, but also the tactics needed to thwart the plans of the enemy. Oh, how well he is served by his military training! He'll deal firmly with problems as they arise. In the meantime, however, as he accustoms himself to his new environment, Antokha justifies each of his missteps with an expression saved for a rainy day: “firmness is not dumbness,” implying that he has drawn his conclusions and that his word is as “hard as flint.” That is, he is filled with “confidence,” which, he will convince viewers, does not consist of empty words but of a genuine determination to achieve his goals, a determination that is greatly underestimated by his opponents in all of its tactical ambiguity.

For those familiar with the everyday chronicle of criminal activity in the capital, events in Antokha's new environment will unfold without any unexpected developments. There will be corrupt militiamen (“oborotni v pogonakh”), illegal houses of ill-repute with foreign prostitutes who speak not a word of Russian, houses that are “protected” by just the same kind of recently discharged soldiers. There will be legal—though totally without any rights—Gastarbeiter from the former Asian republics of the Soviet Union, who are protected—alas!—by no one. There will be the enormous black market run by—as they say nowadays—“people of Caucasian nationality,” a market that is widespread in its barely noticeable but innumerable booths set up in the gloomy underground crosswalks, also carefully guarded by armed men with a military background. Although people say that the army has become weakened in Russia, “peaceful” life uses military men left and right.

The director (on the left) has made artistic sense of this new reality, covered in part in news stories, and it acquires a revealing expressivity on-screen. This is especially important because in the conditions of such a “rejuvenated” reality, a wide and fruitful field of activity opens up for a new type of citizen, totally without principles in his social behavior and frightening in his aggressive activities. Just recently surprised by the undemocratic nature of pay toilets, Antokha Remizov will organically integrate himself into the represented space of thievery and lawlessness. A change of epochs leads to a change of values, with which he arms himself in the process of becoming socialized. It should be emphasized that this transformation occurs organically not in some degenerate, but in an ordinary guy who is not foolish, who has received nothing from life during his twenty years except his pitiless experiences in the army, which are now so much in demand. This is especially valuable if you have a firm—hard as flint—intention to establish your future like a human being.

Actually, Antokha is not quite an ordinary Russian guy; he is very goal-oriented and not inclined to drown his sorrowful impressions in another glass of vodka (like many of his countrymen). In just the same way, in contrast to most of the young men his age, he firmly maintains his allegiance to thoroughly patriarchal family values. He cherishes the mutual harmony of his beloved. There is something not entirely ordinary in his face, “accustomed to outwitting his unending misfortunes,” as Platonov wrote.

And in the course of the film, as Antokha always finds a way out for himself without considering the cost of his success, the viewer indeed becomes convinced that “firmness is not dumbness.” He rigorously observes and analyzes situations as they unfold—or at times as he creates them—always as sharp as flint, even in the dangerous encounters with his enemies. In the end he will outwit everyone; he will make his way around every bend; and he will win his honorable right to live in the capital, shooting his enemies not only in time, but even in accordance with the law. One can only express one's delight with the wonderful young actor Evgenii Antropov, who portrays Antokha Remizov—his hard as flint will to conquer and even the hopelessness of his position in the face of circumstances, which he expresses in a single dramatic word: “SCARY!”

The hero of Hard-Hearted was immediately compared to and also equaled with Ruslan Chutko, Vadim Abdrashitov's fearless hero in Pliumbum, Or a Dangerous Game (Pliumbum, ili opasnaia igra, 1986), especially since Mizgirev was Abdrashitov's student. The very titles of the films provoke their juxtaposition, [1] with the understanding that the two films belong to absolutely different times: Ruslan Chutko is as distant from Antokha Remizov as the period of late Soviet socialism is from early capitalism in Russia. In Pliumbum , Abdrashitov diagnosed the troubling problems of his time, about which either everyone was silent or whose real significance for the future development of the country was not recognized. But Chutko, nicknamed “Pliumbum,” certainly sensed these fundamental changes occurring in life; he even referred to himself as “society's medical orderly”—of that society, which had already been secretly changing for a long time, leaving just the illusion of its life-sustaining force, delivered to the adolescent in textbooks decorated with already dead slogans.

Looking back today on Ruslan Chutko, we can confidently speak of him as a fully romantic hero, totally out of step with his own time. It is not for nothing that the film's subtitle is “ Dangerous Games”—speculative and no longer adequate to the already forming new reality. As it says in the Gospels: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on to an old coat; for then the patch tears away from the coat, and leaves a bigger hole” (Matthew 9:16-17). So as a social phenomenon, Chutko was a very ambiguous figure, as ambiguous as the properties of lead itself—a metal that is durable, but also pliable.

It is no accident that Antokha Remizov was associated in the director's view with the mineral deposit—flint—that also provides sparks for fire. What, besides flint, lies behind guys like Remizov, guys who have been sharpened in their lonely struggle with their own time, who can expect help from no one? What kind of fire will these guys ignite finding themselves in the Procrustean shell of tough social conditions without anything to soften the blow? So it is highly inappropriate to call their encounter with reality a “game.” Their activities are far from Pliumbum's “ideational,”speculative, and aesthetic ones, far from those conditions that cut him off from reality because he operated as if under some laboratory conditions.

It is interesting that Remizov, hard as flint, fits so precisely into this unprincipled time of “everything for sale,” against whose frenzied visible traces Chutko struggled so fiercely, whose actions were seen by the director and scriptwriter as a complex contradiction of the pseudo-heroic and the inescapably historic. Remizov's acts are categorically different from Chutko's; they are provoked not by high (even if inappropriate) socially pressing considerations, but solely by the need to save one's self at whatever cost.

In this respect, it makes sense to compare the hero of Hard-Hearted not only with Pliumbum (from a distant historical period), but also with the hero of Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (Brat, 1997), much closer to him in historical details—also recently returned from the first Chechen war and belonging to the same social layer. In my view, this film was embraced at the time of its release by young viewers because the main character, Danila Bagrov, had not yet lost the heroic ambitions of being an avenger of the people.

The genesis of the heroic in art explains much in the evolution of Russian society. For this reason it is important to emphasize that Antokha Remizov, hard as flint, heroically struggles using any means exclusively for his personal interests. This is the film's principle and specific distinction from Pliumbum and Brother. All of Remizov's morally questionable zigzags in his conflicts in the capital are grounded first of all in his need to prove himself in the eyes of Zinaida. Even if this proving of the self stinks of blood, he is ready to give up any principles to preserve his knightly relationship with the woman of his heart.

In closing this review, it is worth noting that the romantic Pliumbum, incapable of distinguishing between bookish ideas and full-blooded victims was a “loser” of his time in Abdrashitov's film, receiving a very concrete and unexpected payback. Balabanov's Brother—like the hero of his later film War (Voina, 2002)—was still endowed with the signs of heroic resistance to the time that was so hostile to him. Antokha Remizov is not only interesting, but also sympathetic in his indifference to the social good. When push comes to shove, he is concerned only with his own idea, seriously undervalued by others in his passionate commitment—hard as flint. But, unlike Pliumbum, he reaches his goal, achieving even greater stature in Zinaida's eyes, which do not distinguish between the criminal and the heroic. She senses the most important thing: the “radiant future” unwinds in front of her Antokha.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Ol'ga Surkova
Amsterdam

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Images courtesy of CTB.


Notes

1] Pliumbum is the Cyrillic transliteration of the Latin word for “lead.”


Hard-Hearted, Russia, 2007
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Aleksei Mizgirev
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Mizgirev, with participation by Iurii Klavdiev
Cinematography: Vadim Deev
Art Director: Denis Shibanov
Cast: Evgenii Antropov, Dmitrii Kulichkov, Sergei Shekhovtsov, Anastasiia Bezborodova, Tat'iana Nastashevskaia, Aleksandr Golubev, Karen Badalov
Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Mizgirev: Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2007

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