Aleko Tsabadze: Russian Triangle (Russkii treugol'nik, 2007)

reviewed by Julie Christensen© 2008

To Russia with Love: Aleko Tsabadze's Russian Triangle

Nikolai (Kolia, aka Niko) Vorontsov (Artem Tchachenko) is a star law school graduate assigned to a criminal investigative unit in his first taste of field work. He sports a mullet and drives a jeep; he is thin and supple, and moves like a cat. He is well-read, and calls his first partner “Azazello” instead of “Red” like the other members the force. Indeed, it is literature (an old mildewed, smelly volume of Dostoevskii's Devils) that works as Kolia's first clue to a series of murders that he takes on as a personal cause. Working on intuition and a computer-enhanced video found at the second murder scene, Kolia manages to get a step ahead of the police, who are convinced the murders are the work of a local tycoon out to clear the competition.

Kolia “intuits” that two murders—one by the sharp-shooter who dropped Dostoevskii's Devils in the building across the street from the first victim, the other by a “seemingly blind man with a tic” who speared his victim with a cane—are connected to one another. The videotape discovered in the second apartment presents stomach-wrenching documentary footage of various Russian soldiers in Chechnia being blinded, maimed, tortured, or decapitated by local insurgents. Digital enhancement and some computer hacking into medical records give Kolia the identity and whereabouts of two of the victims in the videotape—brothers Denis and Lev Mal'tsev. Convinced that these brothers are his best hope of solving the murders, Kolia visits their apartment to find the blind Lev hysterically and pathetically drunk. In one of the more moving scenes in the film, Kolia follows Denis and Lev to the nearby baths, where he witnesses the great love of these two brothers, as Denis (Konstantin Khabenskii) tries to sober up his blind brother. Kolia tracks Denis to his job as a porter at the train station and, playing the role of a Georgian?new in the city, lonely, and desperate for a friend—sweet talks his way into Denis' life and on to the assignment at hand: to identify and track down the murderers, despite the continual dismissal and taunting he receives by the local CSI.

Kolia/Niko's alleged “Georgian background” points toward the contentious identity of this film for post-Soviet viewers. Some descriptions of the film mention Kolia's “Georgian grandmother” (supplementary commentary by Plakhov; Dzandzava 15). In the version I saw, the “grandmother” never appeared and Kolia's Georgian accent, Svan hat, and claim to have grown up in Abkhazia seemed rather an exercise in role-play that Kolia himself could not stomach (spitting and cursing at himself as he walked away from one such “Georgian encounter with toasts to brotherhood” with Denis). Russian Triangle is a Georgian-made film (Georgian producer, director, art director, composer, editor) with Russian actors (including the popular Konstantin Khabenskii of Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch [2002]) on a Russian theme with unending gestures of love to Russia. Even the sniper is really a Russian, a teacher of Russian literature, who inspired his students in Grozny to love Russian literature—indeed, Russian Teacher was one of the earlier titles of the film. When the teacher comes to visit the school after he losing his wife in a strafing by helicopters, his young female students try to cheer him up by reciting the first line of the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin's first famous published work, Ruslan and Ljudmila . Pushkin, Dostoevskii, and Bulgakov are present throughout the movie. At one point, Kolya explains why he cannot let this case go, even though he is putting himself and those he loves in danger: “I am a citizen of Russia and I love her.”

The young Georgian critic Nana Dzandzava is particularly critical of Tsabadze's pro-Russian angle: “The notion of being able to change the world is a very Russian idea” (16). Russian Triangle is a perfectly crafted movie, professionally done, but it is “pure nostalgia.” It “oozes sentimentality, and echoes of the Soviet past, when everyone was living and working in ‘brotherly friendship'” (13). While the producers of the film claim their film is about “any war” and the victims of “any war,” Dzandzava speaks for many Georgians in responding to this particular war, the war between Russian and Chechnia, when she writes: “Tsabadze exposes the war, but not its perpetrators—and one cannot really remain neutral in this war... A poster, a slogan, a sermon, the political message is wrong” (14). When the film premiered in Tbilisi, the audience reacted to Kolia's lines, “You didn't start this war, but you are continuing it,” with general applause. According to Dzandzava, there were fifty Russians in the audience, flown in for the premier, but there wasn't a single Chechen in the hall. “If there had been, we would have walked out.” But, as she concludes, “If Russians can forgive Georgia's refusal to call Chechens enemies, the film might find a Russian box office” (16).

American and Western responses to the film have been lukewarm. Tom Birchenough, who covered the Moscow International Film Festival in 2007 for Variety, wrote:

Aleko Tsabadze drew the special jury prize for Russian Triangle—nominally a Georgian film in that the director originally hails from Russia's neighbor to the south, though in every other way a thoroughly Russian movie. It's aimed more at commercial auds than usual fest fare.

Given the ongoing political standoff between the two countries, the acclaim for a Georgian pic, even if only formally such, won closing ceremony applause. Critics, however, were more skeptical as their response to the movie was rather underwhelming.

Russian Triangle was the Georgian entry for the Oscars this year, but was clearly overshadowed by both Sergei Bodrov's Mongol (Kazakhstan, 2007) and Nikita Mikhalkov's 12 (2007). For art house viewers, it will disappoint those who loved Gela Babluani's starkly violent haunting 13 (Tzameti, 2005). Many Western viewers will find it old-fashioned, with its low-budget sparcity of special effects, blood and gore—more an intellectual or psychological detective movie with an anti-war theme than a thriller.

In Russia, however, Tsabadze's film has obviously begun to “find its audience.” While working on this review, I received news from Tbilisi that Tsabadze had just received a NIKA, the Russian Oscar for best film of 2007 in the category “from the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics.”

Russian Triangle works at the intersection of Russia, Georgia, and Chechnia, with warm feelings toward Russia. Like Pushkin's Ruslan and Liudmila , the film is an experiment in genre, a mixture of national and international styles and forms. Viewers familiar with the work of Tengiz Abuladze, Otar Ioseliani, and early Mikhail Kalatozov (Kalatozoshvili) will recognize the high aestheticism and grace of the Georgian school in the lighting, framing, editing, art direction, and sound, with its sentimental melodies and diegetic quotes, jazz, and Soviet Orientalism performed by the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra—at times subtle, at others, saccharine, but true to the genre and message of the film. Like Dzandzava, however, most Georgians will not claim this as a “Georgian film” (although the recent NIKA may change their attitude a little). A good number of Russian viewers, I am sure, will warm to the pro-Russian message of the film. As one blogger wrote, “I was amazed that Georgians shot this film, a film about Russia. There's no ‘attack on Russia' in the film, which usually happens when anyone talks about the war in Chechnia, and that is amazing considering the present anti-Russian position of the Georgian government.”

At the premier in Tbilisi, Konstantin Khabenskii said: “I am glad I played in a just film” (qtd. Dzandzava 16). Hopefully the film will remind Russian viewers of old friendships between Russia and Georgia. This certainly should not come, however, at the expense of the Chechens, the third leg of this “Russian triangle.” How viewers read the film will depend, certainly, on their own political point of view. Meanwhile, while the Georgians are delighted to see a fellow Georgian receive a NIKA, in the light of current political events, they would probably rather have taken an Oscar.

 

Julie Christensen
George Mason University

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Works Cited

Birchenough, Tom. “‘Traveling' Tops Moscow Film Fest.” Variety (1 July 2007).

Dzandzava, Nino. “Why I Don't Like Russian Triangle ” [“Ratom ar mometsona russuli samkhudtdeli”]. Kino 4 (spring 2007), Georgia. 12-16.

Plakhov, Andrei. “ Russkii treugol'nik .” Film.Ru (13 November 2007).

 


Russian Triangle, Georgia, 2007
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Aleko Tsabadze
Scriptwriter: Aleko Tsabadze
Cinematographer: George Beridze, Archil Akhvlediani
Music: Vakhtang Kakhidze
Art Director: Kote Japaridze, Gogi Tatishvili
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Petr Mironov, Artem Tkachenko, Ostap Stupka, Ramil Sabitov, Mikhail Zhonin, Anatolii Barchuk, Oleg Primogenov, Oleg Dolin, Inna Belikova, Miroslav Bilonog, Valeriia Chaikovskaia
Producer: Levan Korinteli, Archil Gelovani, Guka Rcheulishvili
Production: Remka Film Studio

Aleko Tsabadze: Russian Triangle (Russkii treugol'nik, 2007)

reviewed by Julie Christensen© 2008

Updated: 03 Apr 08