Valerii Todorovskii: Vice (Tiski, 2007)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2008

Valerii Todorovskii, the director of two well-known social dramas Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998) and My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004), claims his film Vice is not a film about drugs, but rather about the problem of individual choice (Prupis). The film, which premiered at the 2007 Kinotavr Film Festival and was released in November of the same year, follows Denis (Maksim Matveev), a young aspiring DJ who, although poor, has everything else in his favor: a calling in life as a musician, good friends and a faithful companion. Denis's fall from grace begins with a drug deal, which he agrees to out of the need for money. The decision leads to deadly consequences for almost everyone else around him, as Denis is subsequently forced to work as a drug dealer for a mafia boss and as an informer for the police chief of his city. Despite his attempts to “work off his sins” (otrabotka grekhov), Denis cannot escape the world of drugs and violence.

While Vice takes place in the provinces, the film's opening and closing scenes are set in Moscow. At the film's onset, Denis ambitiously travels to Moscow, trying to meet with a music executive without an appointment. His inhospitable arrival is marked visually, as his bright yellow taxi sticks out amongst the gray and black cars in the drab cityscape. Todorovskii presents Moscow as an ominous place. No landmarks are visible, and the audience only sees the inside of an agency where Denis tries to give a disc to the music executive. Moscow, albeit gritty and unappealing, appears as an illusion of fame and success, pulling Denis to do whatever it takes to earn money, and eventually leading him to trouble.

The bulk of the action of Vice takes place in an unnamed city in the south, filmed in Rostov-on-Don. The provinces are seen on one hand as a refuge from Moscow. Crowded, rainy Moscow scenes are immediately juxtaposed with colorful, bright landscape shots of Denis's city. Denis curses Moscow upon his unsuccessful return, and instead finds solace amongst his friends and his job in a fancy nightclub. Todorovskii pays special attention to club culture at the beginning of the film, using a montage of shots that depict an exotic, exciting club scene; strobe lights flash on and off to the beat of loud music, as bartenders light the bar on fire while women dance on top of it. Denis is shown as the center of attention, addressing the crowd who are excited by his arrival.

Music is portrayed as a release from the problems of the everyday for Denis; he can simply put on his headphones and leave everything behind. Todorovskii explores the nightclub culture from two distinct opposing vantage points. According to Denis, clubs provide a “different life” where people are connected through music and share a “common purpose” and “pulse”. Everyone is in harmony with each other, the music and the DJ. This idealistic view is contrasted by the stark reality of the commercially and crime driven industry. Clubs are a space of contested power, run by mafia bosses who sell drugs in backrooms away from the music and the dance floor. Denis is exposed to this truth through his entrance into the criminal world. Mafia boss Verner (Fedor Bondarchuk) lectures Denis that “there is another life where other stakes are at risk” (Zdes' drugaia zhizn', drugie stavki). The city that once seemed picturesque from a distance is in fact a wasteland. Todorovskii makes a point of this by filming many scenes outside, particularly focusing on the heat and barren landscape. The pulsating sun beats down on the faces of the characters, contrasting the image of the strobe light in the night-club.

Casting is one of Vice 's stronger points. Although Masksim Matveev does not give a very strong performance in his debut role, his performance is fitting for a character meant to have little agency. The film instead relies on veteran actors Bondarchuk opposite Aleksei Serebriakov as Dudaitis, an aggressive alcoholic police chief. While they share little onscreen time with each other, they are shot in separate scenes with Denis, constantly pressuring him from both sides. This use of casting actuates the film's title, with the weaker character Denis caught between two very strong personalities.

The film does not offer much outside of its genre as a social drama. Vice was not commissioned by anti-drug agencies, but its four million dollar budget was heavily funded by the state anti-drug organization Gosnarkontrol'. Aside from funding the venture, the agency was actively involved in the production of the film. Russian criticism of the film has been particularly interested in this aspect, from calling the agency's support a form of propaganda to praising its involvement towards creating a realistic picture. In an interview Todorovskii notes that Gosknarkontrol''s support gave the film a sense of realism: “Many people in this organization themselves were once drug users. Moreover, they gave us the opportunity to talk with real drug dealers, showing us the details of the trade” (Ganiiants).[1] This presence seems to make its way beyond small details and into the film's plot, with Dudaitis himself as a former drug user. Dudaitis seems maybe a little too well versed on his statistics about drug use as well, telling Denis how many people die each year from heroine. Much of his dialogue throughout the film with Denis operates as a scare tactic for the audience.

Vice deviates from most drug culture films in that its main characters are not addicts. While Denis is not an addict, he clearly cannot escape the powerful effects of drug use, even when presented with a range of opportunities. Surprisingly, the film shows very little actual drug use. There are no injections, and only one character is seen swallowing a pill. Instead, Vice dwells on the violence surrounding drugs, featuring numerous fight scenes, murders, and shootouts. Todorovskii admits that his film could be darker and more cruel: “If we had made a very cruel film, it would only have shown in one theater in Moscow, but I wanted the film to be seen by a wide audience” (Ganiiants).[2]

Todorovskii tries to compensate for this lack of cruelty ( zhestokost' ) through shock value at the end of the film. He unclamps his vice, finally bringing together Dudaitis and Verner, seemingly releasing Denis from the middle of their battle. The scene features a close up of Denis's face, riddled with indifference as he walks away from the horror taking place behind him. The film ends in uncertainty for Denis, who is last seen at a train station arriving in Moscow, having escaped his past, but also having lost everything. [3] Moscow is here not the familiar destination of triumph, but rather the receptacle for the failed individual.

By showing the downfall of several individuals, Todorovskii's film ultimately carries a very similar condemning message against drugs as two recent American films, Requiem for a Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2000) and Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2000). Where these two movies succeed, Vice however fails; it does a poor job to connect the personal drama with the issues of the social realm. Todorovskii devotes great attention to his characters, but there is little sympathy for them in light of their problems; the personal falls short and thus contributes little meaning towards any social significance.

Stills by Milena Botova from the film's official website.

Andrew Chapman
University of Pittsburgh

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Notes

1] «В этой организации работают некоторые из тех, кто раньше сидел на игле. Кроме того, нам предоставили возможность пообщаться с настоящими наркодилерами, показали наркоманские точки»

2] «Если бы мы сделали очень жесткий фильм, он пошел бы лишь в одном кинотеатре на окраине Москвы, а я хотел, чтобы картину посмотрело как можно больше людей.»

3] Todorovskii actually shot two endings to the film. The alternate ending will be available on DVD, and features Denis as taking over Verner's drug trade. This ending more closely follows Oleg Malovichko's original script, which he adapted into a novel during the shooting of the film.


Works Cited

Ganiiants, Mariia. “Todorovskii uveriaet, chto snial ‘Tiski' ne po zakazu Gosnarkontrolia.” RIA Novosti 9 Nov. 2007.

Prupis, Oksana. “Todorovskii: fil'm ‘Tiski' ne pro narkotiki, a pro problemu vybora.” RIA Novosti 7 June 2007.


Vice, Russia, 2007
Color, 126 min.
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Script: Oleg Malovichko, Valerii Todorovskii
Cinematography: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Aleksandr Andreev, Vladimir Eglitis
Cast: Maksim Matveev, Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Serebriakov, Evgeniia Khirivskaia, Ekaterina Vil’kova, Anton Shagin, Igor' Voinarovskii
Producers: Leonid Iarmol’nik, Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Krasnaia Strela

Valerii Todorovskii: Vice (Tiski, 2007)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2008

Updated: 27 Sep 08