Vladimir Toropchin: Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber (Il'ia Muromets i solovei-razboinik, 2007)

reviewed by Vlad Strukov© 2008

Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber is the third instalment in the animated trilogy about Russian bogatyrs, following Konstantin Bronzit's Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin-zmei 2004, reviewed in KinoKultura 9 by David MacFadyen) and Il'ia Maksimov's Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i zmei Gorynych, 2006, reviewed in KinoKultura 14 by Ulrike Hartmann), all of them produced by the St. Petersburg-based Mel'nitsa animation studio. Each of the films has been a commercial success, grossing in $ 1.7, 3.5 and 9.8 million, respectively (Kinopoisk). Soaring revenues indicate that Russian audiences—just as their counterparts in many regions of the world—are lured to feature-length animation films (and generally to films such as Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005) with distinctive animation-induced features) in the era of ‘post-cinematic' production, which entails greater use of computer-generated and computer-enhanced imagery, or imagery that recreates visual paradigms of contemporary digital culture.

The financial success of the animated trilogy is also a result of the film's massaging of the national ego of Russian people: each is a "Slavic epos"—a cinematic form that may be loosely defined as a fantasy genre based on Slavic/Russian folklore as well as the creatively reworked or vigorously adapted history of early Russia. In fact, so little is known about the East Slavs in the early period that there are scarcely any constraints on the artists' imagination. The prime filmic example of this genre is Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound (Volkodav iz roda serykh psov, 2006) based on the novel by Mariia Semenova, and to a lesser degree—Oleg Fesenko's The Witch (Ved'ma, 2006) based on Nikolai Gogol's short story. The use of Slavic epos in both literature and film belongs to the ongoing Russian search for historical lineage and self-definition exacerbated by the metastasis of imperial fatigue. Pre-historic mythologies also provide opportunities for revisiting more recent events and constructing cultural identity in its contemporaneity.

Like the other two animated features, Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber exploits the tradition of the bylina about Il'ia Muromets, one of the three bogatyrs, which belongs to the legends about Prince Vladimir and Kievan Rus'. The film presumes that Russian audiences are familiar with the mythical narratives and therefore skips the history of Il'ia's formative years (according to the legend, Il'ia suffered a serious illness in his childhood and was unable to walk till the age of 33, when he was miraculously healed by two pilgrims). In addition, the filmmakers provide a different account of the genesis of Il'ia's super-human strength. The original bylina hero was given power by the dying knight Sviatogor, who handed his magic sword over to Il'ia; the strength of the superman of the animation feature rests in his dear horse and its magic hair— it is cut off at a critical point by the villain, which jeopardizes Il'ia's campaign—and his strong superstition, such as his belief that a black cat crossing the road means bad luck. Thus the filmmakers externalise Il'ia's character traits. While Il'ia's function in the legend is to protect Rus' from various aggressors, that is to remain constantly inside the imaginary realm, in the film Ilya is involved in a conflict that eventually takes him into a foreign land and his journey—predictably—becomes one of self-discovery and self-assertion.

During his voyage, Il'ia performs his heroic deeds and confirms the power of his beliefs, whereby common superstitions he reasserts signify mythologized intuitive knowledge that has been retained in the collective memory of the nation. These superstitions not only intensify the conflict presented as Il'ia's determination to follow the rules formed by the common people—the narod—rather than those imposed by the sovereign, the Kievan Prince, but they also serve as a narrative tool that holds the film together. At the end of the film, with his strength weakened by the loss of his horse's hair, Il'ia confronts the main aggressor, Nightingale-Robber, whose destructive power is grounded in his whistling (hence the nickname of solovei, the nightingale). As the turbulent vortex originates in the Nightingale's mouth and Il'ia is evidently unable to withstand the attack, the conflict receives a surprise resolution: a strange old lady who shares the Russian belief that whistling brings bad luck (especially in financial matters) disarms the Nightingale by knocking out one of his teeth with her cane. Therefore, the film demonstrates that it is Il'ia's perseverance, good will and knowledge of popular customs rather than his physical strength that guarantee his victory in the end. The twist in the traditional plot suggests a new moral agenda: the film advocates belonging to a group and maintaining cultural traditions, and thus presents a different role model; it also makes its mark by carefully avoiding the depiction of prosecutorial brutality, possibly because it targets very young audiences.

In the film Il'ia's cultural loyalty and faith translate into his devoted allegiance to the state. The opposing psychological type is the character of Prince Vladimir, who betrays the interests of the kingdom in order to pursue his own. The Kievan prince puts up his bogatyr as a stake in a calculated speculation and as a result loses the state treasures—and Il'ia's horse—to Nightingale. Shown as a corrupt, short-sighted and manipulative ruler, Vladimir entices Il'ia to rescue the horse; the prince accompanies the bogatyr but never reveals his real aim of returning the lost treasures. The angry Il'ia embarks on a long journey, hoping to bring his friend back; his devotion to the horse is quite touching and remains one of the film's most arresting features, as it reveals Il'ia's inner self much better than his relationship with his mother or Alenushka (a young woman who serves as chronicler and messenger in the story), because Il'ia remains indefectibly reserved in his dealings with humans. The director presents the power struggle in the personal realm, with Vladimir and Il'ia confronting each other as equals on their long journey to Constantinople, where Nightingale takes the treasures and the horse. The choice of the destination exhibits the persisting foundation myth of the nation as Russia builds its cultural heritage on the achievements of Kievan Rus' that had borrowed its religious and cultural identity from Byzantium. To underscore the cultural lineage Vladimir refers to the ruler of Constantinople, Vasilevs, as his named brother; however, by depicting Vladimir as a corrupt ruler and Vasilevs as an opportunistic monarch, the filmmakers assert the moral and cultural superiority of Il'ia Muromets. His figure acts as a charter for the present-day social order as it supplies a retrospective pattern of moral values, sociological order and magical belief.[1]

Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber presents a remarkable shift in the interpretation of the original myth and its famous cinematic adaptation by Aleksandr Ptushko produced in 1956. Ptushko's film is informed by multiple dispositions of the epoch. First of all, it presents the memory of WWII by depicting the threat of foreign occupation and the resistance of the people working together to liberate their motherland. The animated film ignores the motif of occupation and in its stead focuses on the individual(-istic) motivations of the characters: Il'ia desires to return his friend, Vladimir craves more money and fame, Alenushka needs a good story for her chronicle. Secondly, Ptushko's film speaks to the paranoia of the Stalinist period by maintaining the notion of ultimate power impersonated by the prince and by focusing on the figure of a traitor whose dismal acts cause devastation to the whole country and harm Il'ia personally. The treacherous acts of Vladimir in the animated film are not so much political mistakes, but rather moments of delusions he frequently experiences; they are caused by his narcissistic adulation. Both Vladimir and Vasilevs are shown as effeminised, bogus characters who lack leadership and rely on intrigues, which may be read as a remarkable critique of Russia's present-day government. Finally, Ptushko's film conveys the discerning views of the Thaw as Il'ia's son—who was held in captivity and raised by the enemy to fight Russia—is forgiven by his father and the nation as soon as his origins are ascertained and his allegiances re-installed. The animated film continues the current Russian cinematic tradition of depicting the son, Il'ia, in the absence of the father and maintaining a spiritual bond with his mother. Their connection is symbolized by a sachet containing some soil of “mother earth” that Il'ia always carries on him, but forgets to bring along on his journey to Constantinople, a failure that further undermines his powers until they are restored by Alenushka who passes the sachet—an emblem of fertility—from the mother to the son; by symbolically connecting with the family she gains access to Il'ia's heart. Therefore, Il'ia's character is presented though his relations with his mother, loyalty to his friend and search for true love, with patriotic aspirations playing a far less significant role (unless the horse is seen as a symbol for the Russian people). This is a necessary modernization of the plot that aims primarily to entertain rather than moralize, which certainly marks a shift in cultural perception.

Vladimir Toropchin's Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber is modern in the sense that it indubitably surrenders historicity in favour of contemporaneity. Thus, for example, the characters speak modern Russian and appear in contemporary—though unreal—situations. Colliding the past and the present is, of course, a safe—and well-practiced—strategy to achieve humorous effects, especially when combined with explicit allusions to current cultural practices, media-mania (the prince is obsessed with his representation in the media) and Russian and Hollywood films (e.g. Il'ia Muromets exclaiming “I'll be back!”). In this regard, the film is an ironic exploration of the discourse of glamour that has prevailed in Russia's media-obsessed culture of the past decade: Il'ia's horse saves the kingdom's treasure by devouring all the gold coins, which eventually are gathered from the horse's manure.

I trust the makers of the film reserved the visual allusion to Emperor Vespasian's famous axiom ‘Pecunia non olet' for adults; they chose a different visual language to speak to their mainly children's audience. Before directing his debut feature Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale Robber, Toropchin worked as animator on various films and producer of computer games. In fact, he has released a number of games based on the films produced by Mel'nitsa or based on popular comedies, such as Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Peculiarities of the National Hunting (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995) and Maksim Pezhemskii's Mum, Don't Cry! (Mama, ne goriui!, 1998). The director has apparently utilized his creative experience by giving the animated film some distinct features of video gaming. Ilya's journey to Constantinople is presented not only as a spiritual quest but also as a basic plot in role-playing games, whereby a common quest is to assemble or return an artefact, which has been displaced or broken into several pieces. Similarly to quest games, the film contains miniature plots that allow the heroes to shine and show their heroic qualities. However, the heroes of video games—and in this case Il'ia—rarely undergo any significant character transformation as the quest itself is the main purpose of their pursuit. The film also reveals an affinity to computer games by its specific organization of space, where the characters are shown against a distinct background that revolves around them, thus creating a sense of motion and an illusion of depth. Furthermore, some frames in Il'ia Muromets are orchestrated in such a way that they parody early video games with their basic use of representational techniques. Finally, the filmmakers use distinct music (written by Valentin Vasenkov) that is familiar from computer games, too.

Such use of the visual and aural apparatus is a departure from the traditional representation of Il'ia Muromets exercised, for example, in Ivan Aksenchuk's films Il'ia Muromets: The Prologue (Soiuzmul'tfil'm, 1975) and Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber (Soiuzmul'tfil'm, 1978), which borrowed heavily from Viktor Vasnetsov's famous painting The Three Bogatyrs (1881-1889) and employed—together with the original music written by Thomas Korganov and Vladimir Komarov—the score from Reingol'd Glier's symphony Il'ia Muromets (1909-1911). While Aksenchuk's films continued the pictorial and musical tradition of Russian realism energised by symbolism (in Vasnetsov's case) and neo-romanticism (in Glier's case).[2] Toropchin's Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber was created under the influence of sequential art, anime and video gaming.

Vlad Strukov
University of Leeds

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1] The motif also prevails in Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004): the imprecation that governs Svetlana, one of the main female characters, and accounts for the eternal conflict between the forces of Dark and Light is the extension of the ‘original' curse which was inflicted on the Virgin of Byzantium, a mythological character whose role in the film is to strengthen tradition and endow the present continuum with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, more supernatural reality of the initial events.

2] Vasnetsov utilized the motifs, genres and manner akin to the work of Mikhail Vrubel', the great Russian painter of the symbolist movement; Glier developed the plangent, introspective tradition of Russian music established by Petr Tchaikovsky.


Works Cited

"Il'ia Muromets i solovei-razboinik”, Kinopoisk

Il’ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber, Russia, 2007
Color, 80 mins
Scriptwriter Aleksandr Boiarskii, with participation of Maksim Sveshnikov
Director Vladimir Toropchin
Production Design Oleg Markelov
Composer Valentin Vasenkov
Editing Sergei Glezin
Voices: Valerii Solov’ev (Il’ia Muromets); Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia (Alenushka), Oleg Tabakov (Vasilevs), Sergei Makovetskii (Kievan Prince), Andrei Tolubeev (Nightingale-Robber)
Producers Sergei Selianov, Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production СТВ, Mel’nitsa, with participation of the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography
website: www.3bogatirya.ru

Vladimir Toropchin: Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber (Il'ia Muromets i solovei-razboinik, 2007)

reviewed by Vlad Strukov© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08