Pavel Chukhrai: The Russian Game (Russkaia igra, 2007)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2008

Pavel Chukhrai's latest film, The Russian Game, hardly seems deserving of serious review. It depends on the star power of its three leading actors (Sergei Garmash, Sergei Makovetskii, and Andrei Merzlikin), the debonair good looks of a Russian-speaking Italian (Guiliano di Capua), and a mediocre rendition of comic antics reminiscent of Viktor Titov's 1975 classic, Hello I'm Your Aunt (Zdravstvuite, ia vasha tetia) to create a slapstick adaptation of Nikolai Gogol''s play The Gamblers (Igroki, 1843). Chukhrai does his viewers, studying for a 19 th century Russian drama exam, the favor of reproducing Gogol' almost verbatim. As in the play, the film tells the story of three Russian gamblers who move from town to town cheating their unsuspecting opponents out of tens of thousands of rubles. While staying at a provincial inn, this trio serendipitously meets a fourth expert card-shark, who has just arrived from afar. Both parties—the trio and this fourth character—have the same intention: to lure others to the card table and to use slights of hand and marked cards to pocket fortunes. However, upon discovering his superior swindling skills, the trio invites the fourth to join their gang, recognizing him as a potential asset to their schemes. Of course, all is not on the up and up. An elaborate plot to deceive this fourth character, concealed until the final scene, leaves him outwitted and financially ruined. In addition to following the play's plot, the film goes so far as to reproduce a theatrical feel; the artifice of cramped studio sets, stylized costumes, and exaggerated performances that provide evidence of the actors' thespian backgrounds seem better suited to the stage than to the screen. [1]

On one hand, as is the case with other Chukhrai films, most notably The Thief (Vor, 1997) and A Driver for Vera (Voditel' dlia Very, 2004), The Russian Game cannot be dismissed too quickly. It has garnered certain acclaim, winning awards at two of the less important film festivals dedicated exclusively to Russian cinema. At the 2007 Window to Europe (Okno v Evropu) film festival held in Vyborg, Russia, it received the Grand Prize and audience favorite awards. It also was recognized with an award from the Moscow Department of Culture at the Moscow Premiere festival. As a result of these awards, the Russian popular press has reviewed the film comprehensively and positively. Irina Liubarskaia, writing in the weekly journal Itogi, lauds Andrei Zhegalov's cinematography, congratulates the actors on inspired performances, and complimentarily describes the screenplay as witty. Larisa Iusipova, who covered the film for Vremia novostei , deems it as the unqualified leader of the Window to Europe festival program, an opinion shared by Lidia Maslova, a journalist at Kommersant" .

On the other hand, the enthusiasm at the Vyborg festival and these positive reviews notwithstanding, the film has not attracted much of an audience. Acknowledging that viewership statistics of Russian films are notoriously difficult to pin down, box office figures nonetheless reveal that unlike two other films released just two weeks prior to The Russian Game—Nikita Mikhalkov's 12 (2007) and Sergei Bodrov's The Mongol (2007)—both of which stayed on the top ten list for four straight weeks earning approximately 150 million rubles each, The Russian Game secured tenth place only on the week of its release (4 October 2007), earning just over 2 million rubles. While these modest accolades and dismal box office figures reinforce my initial statement that The Russian Game hardly requires lengthy consideration, by placing it into two contexts—first, the context of the contemporary Russian film industry; and, second, the context of a Soviet comedy subgenre that finds humor in foreigners' ostensible stereotyping of Russians as naïve and easily duped—it stands out as illustrative. Let's consider each in turn.

In recent years cinematic and tele-visual adaptations of works from both 19 th century Russian and 20 th century Soviet literary pantheons have boomed. Commenting on this in her review of Gleb Panfilov's adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle (V kruge pervom, 2006) for television, Elena Prokhorova writes:

Judging by the TV schedule, the production of classics is a well planned “campaign.” The Five Year Plan of 19th century classics opens with The Idiot and continues with Anna Karenina (dir. Sergei Solov'ev, 2005); Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni; dir. Aleksandr Kott, 2005); and The Brothers Karamazov (dir. Iurii Moroz, planned for release in 2007). The 2005-2006 seasons were dedicated to forbidden Soviet novels and controversial authors. In addition to the widely advertised First Circle, Master and Margarita (dir.Vladimir Bortko, 2005) and Doctor Zhivago (dir. Aleksandr Proshkin, 2006), viewers were treated to Moscow Saga (Moskovskaia saga ; dir. Dmitrii Barshchevskii, 2004), based on a novel by Vasilii Aksenov, and Esenin (dir. Igor' Zaitsev, 2005).

Shifting from the small to the big screen, we can add Stanislav Govorukin's 2005 film version of Vladimir Dudintsev's Thaw-era novel Not by Bread Alone (Ne khlebom edinym, 1956) and, now, Chukhrai's The Russian Game. Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that although this film appeared in Russian movie theaters, however briefly, its primary financial backing came from the television station, “Russia.” Moreover, one article published in Komsomol'skaia pravda almost a year prior to the film's release describes it as a made-for-television movie. [2]

Although adaptations of literary classics appear in every cinema industry the world over, certain explanations for their sustained prominence in Soviet and Russian filmmaking prove to be unique. For example, though the situation has improved by leaps and bounds since the malokartin'e crisis of the mid-1990s when film production plummeted to a shocking 34 feature films in 1996, the industry today continues to lack sufficient original screenplays from which to choose. Speaking at a roundtable discussion dedicated to the question “Screenwriting: A Crisis of the Profession or the Industry?” (“Kinodramaturgiia: krizis professii ili industrii?”) at the 2007 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, Russia, Chukhrai offered the following opinion:

Of course it is imperative to gather and talk in particular with screenwriters and directors about creative problems. But the fact is that today there is no group of people with whom to have this conversation. During Soviet power (and in the USA through today) there were people who made a living in the screenwriting trade. Today such people practically do not exist. (10)

Shifting from the point of view of industry to cultural considerations, it may be possible to credit the primacy of the Word in Russo-Soviet culture—that is, literature—as asserting its influence over visual media such as film. If we accept Nancy Condee's assertion made in her introduction to Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in late Twentieth-Century Russia that “[t]o the extent that one could speak of a keystone of Soviet culture, the object holing that triumphal arch was the book, preferably the big book or ‘brick' [kirpich], the conceptual building block of the new high culture” (viii), then the current trend to recreate novels for the screen—— big and small—reveals a persistent attempt to keep verbal culture relevant. Prokhorova seems to support this claim when she, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, characterizes the current boom of adaptations as a “well-planned ‘campaign',” thus humorously insinuating that this irrepressible trend of screening literary classics must be the result of some directive.

It might, however, be equally useful to contradict the ostensible supremacy of the Word and cite precisely the opposite reason to explain this trend. That is, it is not the primacy of the Word, but the primacy of the Image in 21 st century post-Soviet culture that has led to the boom in adaptations, or ekranizatsii, as they are called in Russian. Now that Russian (rossisskie) youth are replacing the sine qua non multi-volume collections of literary classics that for decades have decorated all intellectuals' bookshelves with stacks of cheaply purchased DVDs, it seems more likely that they will acquaint themselves with the canon via digital imagery rather than from the yellowing pages of their parents' (grandparents'?) books. Whatever the case, Chukhrai undeniably has jumped on a bandwagon already crowded with many of his colleagues.

As for his own explanation as to why he chose to adapt The Gamblers—not one of Gogol''s particularly popular plays—Chukhrai, who doubles as director and screenwriter of The Russian Game, claims that this story has long interested him because it remains relevant even today. By that he means, curiously, that the narrative communicates Western Europe's unfair propensity to cast Russia in an eternally provincial light. [3] This response leaves us scratching our heads in confusion. Gogol''s play does not engage with questions of Western European stereotypes of Russia or Russians. In The Gamblers, all four main characters are Russian. Gogol''s fourth gambler, Ikharev, who hails from Smolensk and is afflicted by a penchant for gambling equal to that of the trio he meets at the inn, is replaced in The Russian Game with an Italian. This addition is purely Chukhrai's and reveals the one major modification he makes in adapting the narrative from either page or stage (take your pick) to screen. Specifically, Chukhrai substitutes Ikharev with Lukino Fortsa, who faces a prison sentence in Naples should he fail to repay some very large debts that he has accrued in various European cities. With a dubious reputation throughout the continent, the Italian heads to Russia, where he believes he will easily cheat the country's simple-minded, generous, and drunk provincial inhabitants.

This innovation brings us to the second context—that of the Soviet comedy tradition, within which The Russian Game must be placed. Chukhrai participates in a disparaging sort of self-stereotyping that, interestingly, has a history in Russo-Soviet film history dating back to Lev Kuleshov's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikov, 1924). Mr. West—a metonymic stand-in for all American men—arrives in Russia expecting to find a host of unsavory characters. Just when it seems that Mr. West's fears are confirmed, real Bolsheviks rescue him from the hands of a corrupt, bourgeois “count” and treat him to a showcase of the Soviet Union's proudest cultural features—the Kremlin, the Bol'shoi Theater, and a magnificent Soviet parade. By film's end, Mr. West has learned to admire the Soviet Union and embrace Lenin, almost literally: he carries a portrait of the Bolshevik leader back home to the US. While Kuleshov's satire of an American's slanted view of the Soviet Union as a land of savage brutes makes fun of the American, identifying him as a gullible fool, it also characterizes Russians as having a negative image abroad. El'dar Riazanov's similarly titled The Extraordinary Adventures of Italians in Russia (Neveroiatnye prikliucheniia ital'iantsev v Rossii, 1973), made approximately fifty years later, also presents a group of foreigners who arrive in the Soviet Union with demeaning preconceptions. Assuming that they can outwit Russians, the Italians intend to swindle the country out of a significant buried treasure. Because the Italians fail to value the empire's grandeur (they are not only nonplussed by the innumerable landmarks they pass, but also destroy many of them as they dig for the rumored fortune) and its governmental organization, which stops the Italians from running away with the riches, it is the Italians, in the end, and not the Russians who are duped. By film's end, again replicating Kuleshov, the Italians learn to respect the Soviet Union.

With minimally different inflections these films engage in a type of self-stereotyping: Russians depict Westerners as harboring unflattering perceptions of Russians as witless, easily fooled, and unsophisticated. Chukhrai follows this tradition. However, whereas the Soviet films end on a happy note, The Russian Game concludes with the Italian's realization that Russian gamblers, whom he had grown to trust, stole his percentage of their collective winnings. Rather than come to realize Russia's greatness—as the foreigners of Kuleshov's and Riazanov's films do—Chukhrai's Italian discovers that his perception of Russia as a generous, if provincial and simple country, is erroneous. False promises and an elaborate scam combine to leave the Italian rubleless and damning Russia as a “shameless country” (“bessovestnaia strana”). Itogi journalist Liubarskaia concludes her review in a congratulatory tone, when she writes—while riffing on the title of Sergei Menaev's best-selling contemporary novel, Soulless: A Story of an Unreal Man (Dukh less: Povest' o nenastoiashchem cheloveke)—that it is not the Russian soul that is the victor of the film, but Russian soullessness (“Vot tol'ko pobedil v itoge ne russkii dukh, a russkii dukh less”).

Dawn Seckler
University of Pittsburgh

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Notes

1] Makovetskii graduated from the Shchukin Theatrical Institute in Moscow and went on to become a member of the Vakhtangov Theater repertory company. Garmash, who also graduated from an acting department, has worked at the Sovremennik Theater since 1984. Merzlikin, who studied acting at VGIK (The Russian State Institute of Cinematography), is a member of the Moscow Dramaturgical Theater since 1999.

2] The lead of Mitina's article reads as follows: “Pavel Chukhrai has begun to shoot a tele-film based on Gogol''s play The Gamblers for the ‘Russia' channel.”

3] At a press conference held on 15 August 2007, Chukhrai made the following comments: “A long time ago, back in the 1990s, I conceived of shooting this story, which in my view, has not changed much even today. I have in mind our eternal provincial settling of scores with the abroad.”

 


Works

Condee, Nancy. Introduction. Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late Twentieth-Century Russia . Ed. Nancy Condee. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. vii-xxiii.

Iusipova, Larisa. “Probuksovka na nicheinoi territorii.” Vremia novostei (17 August 2007).

“Kinodramaturgiia: krizis professii ili industrii?” Roundtable discussion. Iskusstvo kino 8 (2007): 5-21.

Liubarskaia, Irina. “Zdes' russkii dukhless.” Itogi (29 September 2007).

Maslova, Lidiia. “Russkaia ikra.” Kommersant (17 August 2007).

Mitina, Liubov'. “Garmash i Makovetskii uchatsia na shulerov.” Komsomol'skaia Pravda (3 August 2006)

Prokhorova, Elena. Rev. of First Circle . Dir. Gleb Panfilov. Kinokultura 15 (2007).

 


The Russian Game, Russia, 2007
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Pavel Chukhrai
Scriptwriter: Pavel Chukhrai, based on Nikolai Gogol'’s The Gamblers
Cinematography: Vladimir Klimov and Andrei Zhegalov
Cast: Sergei Garmash, Sergei Makovetskii, Andrei Merzlikin, Guiliano di Capua
Producer: Sergei Shumakov
Production: Korsa Film

Pavel Chukhrai: The Russian Game (Russkaia igra, 2007)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08