Mikhail Kalatozishvili: Wild Field (Dikoe pole, 2008)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova© 2008

Hope and Death in the Steppes

Wild Field is a quiet film, shot amongst the greenish-brown rolling hills of the Kazakh steppe where, in a former hospital lost in the middle of nowhere, there lives a young handsome man, the regional doctor. A man of very few words, the doctor, Dmitrii Vasil'evich Morozov, or Mitia (Oleg Dolin), weathers his days collecting herbs, reading, and treating as best as he can his occasional patients, substituting the endemic lack of medications and facilities with ingenuity and compassion, outlining in few broad strokes a rather bleak picture of life on the social, geographical and historical margins. This is not surprising since the script, religiously followed by director Mikhail Kalatozishvili [1] was written by the connoisseurs of the Soviet okraina (outskirts), the late Aleksei Samoriadov (1962-94) and Petr Lutsik (1960-2000), who penned the scripts for some of the most unusual Russian films from the 1990s, including Diuba-Diuba (1993, dir. Aleksandr Khvan), Children of Iron Gods (Deti chugunnykh bogov, 1993, dir. Tamás Tóth), Limita (1994, dir. Denis Evstigneev), Outskirts (Okraina, 1998, dir. Petr Lutsik). Their high-strung metaphorical style is marked by the tragi-comical approach to fundamental questions of post-Soviet existence, where satirical, even grotesque profanization of official constructs and their pundits, is elegantly countered by subtle sacralization of ordinary folks and their natural wisdom.

In the tradition of Children of Iron Gods and Outskirts, Wild Field uses peculiar spaces and the vagueness of time to set poignantly realistic portrayals of people and lives in the high relief of poetic allegory. As in Children of Iron Gods, the absence of any and all official authority, the sporadic references to an unidentified, but complete political and economic breakdown in the past, and anticipation of a looming disaster in the future places the narrative outside history, in the dystopian realm of universal survivalist mythology. Left to their own devices, the characters are cast in situations alternating between the allegoric and the purely anecdotal, borrowed from Russian folklore, urban myths, and literature. The sparse but witty verbal exchanges balance between worn-out colloquial clichés and aphoristic wisdom.

Fleeting, mostly ironic references to vestiges of power like the Kremlin, Moscow, American Humanitarian Aid, and other scarce time indicators—Mitia's white jeans and the nature of the physical and psychological ailments he is confronted with—loosely anchors the story into the past two decades. The extant privation and tangible lawlessness, with all the ensuing consequences, is a sad reminder that those are still topical, in spite of the fact that the script is more than fifteen years old... Indeed, a radio announcement towards the end of the film places the events in August 2007 by playing pieces that were launched by the Americans into space precisely thirty years ago as ‘Earth symbolic musical messages'. The concrete severity of time and its problems are, however, tampered by the mystique of the open vistas and the elegiac pathos of a story that gradually grips our attention and our emotions…

Wild Field is divided into eleven segments: Prologue, Epilogue and nine Episodes, separated by Interludes, with each segment introducing a new situation and new “contrasting characters,” equally effective in revealing “the main action in different ways,” since their “‘disagreements” bring dramatic tension to the “all the Episodes” (Fergusson, 23). Therefore the careful selection of actors for contrasting characters is of fundamental importance here, because it is through them that Mitia's character—predicated on his “existence in and through” the main action, and not on initiating it—is revealed (Neale, 258).

The Prologue establishes Mitia as the lyrical subject of the narrative and sketches his solitary way of life in the dilapidated old hospital amongst the dusty wild fields. The stunning camera work of Petr Dukhovskoi, carefully integrating the predominantly medium to long shots of the characters within the open spaces, tacitly infers the metaphysical power of the steppe's enveloping and unpredictable presence. The melancholic sense of solitude and naked exposure to the unknown is further enhanced by Mitia's nagging realization that someone is watching him from the hill-tops across the valley. His growing preoccupation with the watcher, whom he later sees from the reverse vantage point wandering about his front yard, fits into the Freudian description of the “double.” The “double,” argued Freud, is the “first sign of the separation of the body from its ‘immortal' soul,” its “double,” which since then has gradually lost its numinous aspect to become “an uncanny harbinger of death.” (Freud, 219-252) Thus Mitia's “double,” a recurring omen of looming disaster, carries the contrapuntal theme of melancholy and death, which, juxtaposed against the theme of survival, ensures the suspenseful effectiveness and spiritual profundity of the episodic narrative. As a mise-en-abyme after the fact, so to speak, highlighting the film's polyphonic structure, the final piece played on the radio on the anniversary of sending the “symbolic musical messages” into space is Bach's “Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1”, one of the greatest works of polyphonic music.

In the Prologue, the director also introduces Riabov (Roman Madianov), the first in the succession of contrasting characters. Riabov is the regional policeman, a Soviet-era militiaman, the only one in the huge area under his jurisdiction. Although a figure of authority, this robust old-school representative of law and order is portrayed with sympathy and warmth. His perennial agitation starkly underscores the doctor's melancholic serenity, pretty much as his chubby figure, sweaty face and stained uniform, worn over a dirty T-shirt is at odds with Mitia's tall stature and modestly suave attire. Designed as Mitia's physical and temperamental opposite, the well-meant Riabov is his best friend and protector. Structurally speaking, his brief, strategically placed appearances in crucial moments of the narrative relate his role to that of the Greek Chorus in ancient dramas. According to Aristotle, “It is the Chorus which most directly represents the action of the play; and the Chorus can do that just because it has less character than the [protagonist] or his antagonists. In the Chorus we can sense the action at a deeper-than-individual level … mark [ing] the life and movement of the play” (Fergusson, 24).

Riabov's Prologue enunciation, after a routine question whether Mitia has seen anything unusual lately, is that “something is going to happen,” thus intensifying the already tense atmosphere. And even before he disappears in clouds of dust on his galloping horse, we already know that something is indeed going to happen, since Mitia fails to tell him about the watcher.

In the first Episode, Mitia's snaps out a robust middle-aged man from an alcoholic coma, applying cures as ancient as the Russian national obsession with vodka—blood-letting and iron-bar flesh-burning. This fairly easy rite is meant to demonstrate Mitia's professional agility and the respect of the community, expressed by the men accompanying the patient. It is, however, counterbalanced by the arising melancholic mood during the first Interlude, when Mitia finds his remote mailbox empty.

The second Episode reveals more of the same, confronting Mitia with a similar, albeit psychologically more complex professional task: a disheveled shepherd (Aleksandr Korshunov) with a sick cow, who might have “eventually swallowed a table-cloth,” comes to seek help for his burnt arm. The wound, of course, is just an externalization of his severe mid-life discomfort and emotional neediness—an excuse for sharing with the sympathetic doctor the story of his failed life and dreams. And while lending his friendly year to the shepherd's tragicomic recount and entertaining its anecdotal conclusion that only a war could cure the ubiquitous ennui as it is “more fun,” Mitia tries to ease the very tangible suffering of the neglected cow with a large dose of human indigestion pills.

Riabov makes another appearance in the third Episode as the leader of a small group of locals engaged in a shootout with two alleged criminals “supposedly coming from Asia,” who are hiding in the doctor's barn. After his unsuccessful attempt to locate the watcher amongst the hills during the Interlude, Mitia shows up in medias res, unperturbed by the flying bullets and the raging passions. By far, this episode posits the greatest challenge to Dolin's ability to blend within a wide variety of actions and emotional states his fellow actors initiate on behalf of their contrasting characters. This rare protean gift allows him, while preserving his placid demeanor, to simultaneously soak up and exude the dominant mood of the scene.

The stand-off is unceremoniously resolved by Panka, Riabov's unruly nephew, who outwits the ongoing negotiations by throwing a hand grenade into the barn, killing the persecuted. The didactic potential of this act of preventive vigilantism is tempered by the atavistic desire of Perfil'ev (the alleged victim of the “criminals”) to chop off the head of one of the deceased and keep it as a souvenir. The surge of grotesque personages and gratuitous sadism, taken ad absurdum in this episode, are eerily similar to Outskirts, “a post-modern pastiche,” where the director identifies as “powerful sources of post-Soviet horror the collapsing boundaries between the collective and the individual, capitalism and socialism, the old and the new. In a paradoxical reversal of post-Communist loyalties, the source of the uncanny in Outskirts is the tension between the ‘new' Russian way of life and the ‘old' Soviet one.” (Stojanova 99-100)

After falsifying his report on the incident in favor of the locals, Riabov concludes the Episode with yet another grim reminder that “something awful, something anxious is spreading across the steppe.”

In the fourth Episode Mitia's gets a surprise visit by Galina, a beautiful local girl (Irina Butanaeva). She is the daughter of a regional dignitary and arrives in his Volga, an old but still luxurious Soviet sedan. Her clumsy attempts at flirting with Mitia fail, but thanks to her inquisitiveness it becomes clear that he has a bride, Katia, who is expected some time soon. Before driving off, Galina points to the hills where the watcher usually stands, and tells him that there, as a local myth has it, a bewitched ancient pit houses an unnatural beast, which roams the hills at night, devouring cows. As another foreboding allusion to the looming disaster, she asks him whether it is true that he could cure even the dead. And, after informing him that she will never die, declares that in case Katia defaults on her promise, she is ready to take her place... This episode reveals Mitia's charisma as heavily reliant on emotional reticence and silence, and readily comparable to that of the heroes played by such irresistible symbols of cinematic masculinity as Alain Delon, Clint Eastwood and Chow Yun Fat whose “silence…[and] absence of language can … be linked to narcissism and to the construction of an ideal ego” (Neale, 257).

During the subsequent short interlude, Mitia sees the watcher getting ever so closer to his home, but is distracted by the visit of Fedor Abramovich (Iurii Stepanov), the head doctor from the near-by town. Apart from some external analogies—same Soviet apparat pedigree, same short stocky figures and plump faces—Abramovich is construed as Riabov's moral and social adversary, thus augmenting horizontally the ensemble of contrasting characters. In his expensive suit, expensive car, hypocritical social concerns and genuine private greed, especially in his face, frozen into a self-pitying grimace, one can easily identify the prototypical New Russian. Abramovich's excessive verbosity on all topical subjects is sardonically juxtaposed with Mitia's endemic silence. His anecdotal lamentation for all things Soviet and for those “wonderful” ailments as “migraines, diabetes and bronchitis,” which have unfortunately been replaced by “gun-shot wounds, gonorrhoea and alcohol-related traumas” is followed almost instantly by a Dostoevskian grand soliloquy about God having turned his face away from the Russians. Mitia follows him around, trying to discuss shortages and supplies, but his unobtrusively intelligent manner is no match for Abramovich, who in response arrogantly hands him a non-descript package of American humanitarian aid. Because of a misfortunate golf swing, however, he lands a stone on his car's window shield, thus restoring the ethical balance in the film's poetic universe.

The next Interlude and Episode offer some respite, predicated on the “pleasure of seeing [Mitia] exist” (Neale, 258). That is, the pleasure in following him around through his routine evening chores—eating simple supper, watching television. And later on, the pleasure in seeing him with the shepherds in the pouring rain and through the pitch-dark night to a remote place, where a pal of theirs had been struck by lighting. The victim has been buried into the ground with only his head and left arm sticking out, a traditional treatment Mitia is unfamiliar with and rather skeptical of, as he declares the man dead on the spot. But the man returns from the dead, albeit without Mitia's help, and drinks and eats with the rest, even telling them how “unusual” it all was in the yonder world.

The sixth Episode is preceded by an Interlude, featuring another disappointing trip to the mailbox. This time around Mitia runs into the mailman, who is apparently aware of Mitia's heartaches. In an ill-deigned gesture of camaraderie and compassion, he tries to fix Mitia with a local whore, only to arouse his indignation in response.

Finally, in Episode seven, Katia (Daniela Stoianovich) arrives, and the first thing she asks Mitia after their love-making on the large bed outside the house is who the man standing on the hill-top across is. “My guardian angel,” responds Mitia in what turns out to be one of the longest verbal exchanges between them. Their happiness seems endearingly conventional and complete—she washes, dusts the house; he reads, watches her; they eat, dream and make love—and therefore implausible. Her departure with the hasty words that she would never see him again because she has already married another man far away, comes as an anticipated and yet abrupt finale of their relationship, marking the inevitable tragic downturn of the narrative.

Following Vladimir Propp's analyses of folktales, in her discussion of the Western Laura Mulvey outlines “two narrative functions: ‘marriage' (and hence social integration) and ‘not marriage', a refusal by the hero to enter society, a refusal motivated by a nostalgic narcissism” (Mulvey in Neale, 258). The narrative of Wild Field, however, turns this proposition on its head: Mitia wants passionately to enter society and complete his Oedipal trajectory with marriage, but the society is no more: it has disintegrated, in spite of the arduous attempts to resuscitate it which the film makes us privy to. Therefore Katia has married a man from a far-off land, where society presumably still exists, and Mitia is pushed back into a forceful “nostalgic celebration” of his “narcissistic omnipotence” and “self-possessed silence” (Mulvey in Neale, 259).

Episode eight begins in tempo, imposed by Riabov's succinct forewarning of the arrival of the victims of a shooting incident in the village, involving his nephew Panka who, in a fit of jealousy has wounded Galina badly before turning the gun on himself in a botched suicide attempt. The preparation for the operation and the ultimate salvation of the lovers is the culmination of the narrative, but also of Oleg Dolin's firm control of his personage. Until this point, his Mitia has been overwhelmed by events and people, moving at least one step ahead, and his goings and doings have been largely reactive. In this episode he is transformed from an aloof bystander to a taskmaster, profoundly convincing as the fabled doctor who could indeed cure the dead. Not unlike the great silent heroes of Alain Delon in Le Samourai (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967) or of Chow Yun Fat in The Killer (Dip huet seung hung, dir. John Woo, Hong-Kong, 1989) who sacrifice their imperviousness for the entirely selfless but passionate cause to save a woman or restore justice, or both, Mitia is jolted out of his emotional reticence by a fierce determination to save Galina. And as the heroes of Delon and Fat who succumb to death willingly, Mitia has a dear price to pay. Apparently, in his fight for Galina's fading life, Mitia has tricked the forces of death that were claiming her, and they respond with a devastating night storm.

In the last, ninth Episode Mitia meets his double face to face, which according to many metaphysical traditions (folkloric and literary) means certain death. The doppelgänger, however, turns out to be not quite an identical double, looking more like a reflection in a distorting mirror: as tall and slim as Mitia, but almost bald, horribly unkempt and mangy. His reactions to Mitia's attempts to help him are child-like and his language reticence is regressively primitive, not a sophisticated character trait…

After Mitia cleans his open wounds, the stranger steals his shirt, stabs him casually but deeply with a scalpel, and runs away, leaving Mitia for dead at the door of his house. In this sense Wild Field is strongly remindful of Solaris (1972), where Andrei Tarkovskii links the Frankensteinian gothic horror motif of the creator and his monstrous creation with that of the “double”: the supernatural beings terrorizing the inhabitants of the spaceship are none other but “phenomenal objectifications” (Berdyaev) of their repressed passions and desires—in other words, their doppelgänger.

In the Exode (or Epilogue), Mitia comes to his senses, blinded by the steppe sun shining over the heads of his worried pals taking him to hospital on a blanket. Riabov is also there, on his horse, asking again routine questions about who did it, but is hushed down by the others… While the reassuring finale remains quite ambivalent about the nature of the double on a realistic, psychoanalytical, metaphysical or poetic level—is he a roaming pauper, driven mad by hunger and privation; Mitia's alter ego; his neglected soul, or indeed the harbinger of death—it certainly is worthy of the poetic universe of Wild Field, such a rare and powerful tribute to hope, friendship and life…

Christina Stojanova
University of Regina

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Notes

1] Grandson of Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973), most famous in the West for his film The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957 ) and I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba/Ia—Kuba, 1964)


Works Cited

Berdyaev, N. (1992) [1946]. The Russian Idea.

Ferguson, Francis. “Introduction”, in Aristotle's Poetics, Hill and Wang: NewYork, 1961.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”, in James Strachey (ed.)The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (vol. XVII). London: Hogarth (1953).

Neale, Steve. “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema”, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Feminism & Film, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Stojanova, Christina. “Mise-en scènes of the Impossible: Soviet and Russian Horror Films”, in X. Mendik, E. Mathijs (eds), Alternative Europe, Wallflower & Columbia U Press, 2004.


Wild Field, Russia, 2008
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Mikhail Kalatozishvili
Scriptwriters: Aleksei Samoriadov and Petr Lutsik
Cinematography: Petr Dukhovskoi
Art Director: Sergei Avsreievskikh
Original Score: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Oleg Dolin, Aleksander Il’in Sr., Aleksandr Il’in Jr., Roman Madianov, Irina Butanaeva, Aleksandr Korshunov, Daniela Stoianovich, Petr Stupin, Iurii Stepanov
Producers: Mikhail Kalatozishvili, Sergei Snezhkin
Production: “Mikhail Kalatozov Fund”, Studio Barmalei

Mikhail Kalatozishvili: Wild Field (Dikoe pole, 2008)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova© 2008

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