Issue 24 (2009)

Aleksei Uchitel’: The Captive (Plennyi, 2008)

reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2009

captiveAleksei Uchitel’’s film, The Captive, based on Vladimir Makanin’s 1995 story, “The Captive of the Caucasus”, is the latest in a long line of stories, both literary and cinematic, which attempt to portray and even explain Russia’s long and still troubled relationship with its southern neighbors. At the same time, its depiction of the futility and tedium of war deliberately evokes not only the Vietnam film, but also works both of cinematic and literary traditions which stretch back to World War I, or even Tolstoi’s Sevastopol Stories (In fact, the film was shot in the Crimea). (And Pechorin was, of course, fighting Chechens in A Hero of Our Time, as long ago as 1840.) 

On one level the film’s plot is very simple. The two main characters, Rubakhin (Viacheslav Krikunov) and Vovka (Petr Logachev) capture a young Chechen fighter (unnamed in Makanin’s story, and ‘The Youth’ in the cast list for the film, but referred to as Djamal in dialogue: played by Iraklii Mskhalaia) to help them find their way back to their company trapped in a ravine. On the way they think about rescuing another captive, their comrade Boiarkov (Andrei Fes’kov), but he is sadistically killed by the local forces. After a night spent out in the open, the two Russian soldiers happen upon two bands of Chechen fighters joining forces. As they hide from the enemy who are no more than a few feet away, Djamal attempts to summon his comrades, and Rubakhin kills the young man. The film ends as it had opened, with Rubakhin and Vovka inside an APC driving along narrow mountain roads, seemingly heading nowhere very fast.

captiveUchitel’, in fact, seeks to convey his theme more indirectly. There is very little background information given through titles or any other means. The viewer is thus left disorientated, not knowing precisely when or where the action takes place. We assume that we are in Chechnya in the recent past, but we cannot be sure. The film has a kind of circularity, with the closing shots echoing the opening sequences, thereby suggesting that the cycle of futility will continue. After the opening shots, Rubakhin seeks assistance from his commander, Lieutenant Colonel Gurov (Tagir Rakhimov), only to be told that they must find their own captive to guide them through: he has no time to concern himself with their problems, they are on their own. Their subsequent quest for a way back through difficult and dangerous terrain suggests a kind of existential problem, as well as echoing very ancient, even mythological narratives. Waiting to set off, Rubakhin voraciously devours the soup given to them by Gurov’s wife (Svetlana Dorokhina), while Vovka indulges other human appetites with lusty Nastia (Iuliia Peresil’d), these inter-cut scenes reminding us of the core humanity of these men, and their very basic needs.

captiveMeanwhile, another piece of preliminary action is also inter-cut. Gurov entertains local leader Alibekov (Dagun Omaev) with tea and vodka, and offers Alibekov the very Kalshnikovs which are then being captured from the local fighters in exchange for supplies. Once more a futile cycle is set up, while here and throughout the film, Uchitel’ suggests that different elements within the demoralized Russian forces follow their own various agendas completely; equally the two warring enemies, the Russians and the locals, exchange goods, which thereby ensure the war will continue. Throughout the film the actual fighting seems chaotic, almost random. To capture hostages and weapons the Russians chase the local fighters through woods and across racing streams with the bizarre combination of helicopters circling above and ravenous dogs on the ground. Rubakhin and Vovka infiltrate this attack to get their own captive, for their own purposes, and then refuse to surrender him to the soldier, Savkin (Sergei Umanov) who has ordered the attack. Later, Rubakhin and Vovka are fired upon by unseen snipers, while they in turn train their sights on a local village. Military discipline, or even following orders are largely absent.

captiveThis atmosphere of chaos and alienation is reinforced by the film’s sparse dialogue. Makanin, who scripted the film with the assistance of Timofei Dekin, retains the very ordinary colloquial exchanges of his original story. There is little that is particularly meaningful said by anyone. The mise-en-scène adds to this effect.  The opening scenes suggest intense summer heat, the dry and dusty conditions exacerbating the soldiers’ difficult lives. Once Rubakhin, Vovka and their captive begin their trek, they wander, seemingly without clear direction, through a variety of changing landscapes. Much of their journey takes them through heavily wooded terrain, where the colors and light become very muted. The scene changes almost at random, and little of consequence occurs. Uchitel’ alternates between static cameras offering extreme close-ups of tense faces and long shots of virtually anonymous figures in a landscape.

captiveThe going gets very tough at times, as they ford raging torrents, and Djamal is almost swept away. Then they’re scrambling across rough scree, constantly losing their footing. A night spent in the woods, with their faces almost invisible as they exchange whispered confidences against the surrounding blackness, is followed by a day of torrential driving rain. Uchitel’’s cameraman, Iurii Klimenko shoots the three young men climbing what looks like an almost vertical cliff face, with rain driving down, in extreme long-shot. The light is dull, the whole scene is bleakly grey, the three reduced to mere specks. Their climb is rewarded with their reaching an expanse of dark grey mud, where they sit exhausted. These consecutive scenes capture in microcosm the existential futility of what they are doing, the utter stupidity of this war. The echoes of the endless mud of the First World War trenches, or the closing desolate scenes of The Commissar (Komissar, 1967) suggest that all war is stupidly futile.   

In many war films, whether Russian or western, a key central relationship offsets the surrounding chaos and futility; camaraderie is established, and core human values refuse to be engulfed by the inherent insanity of war. To some extent Uchitel’ continues this tradition, only to ultimately deny it. Rubakhin and Vovka are an odd couple, as their slaking of different thirsts in the opening sequences suggest. Thereafter, while looking out for each other on the journey quest, they fail to develop a real relationship, and the older Rubakhin constantly rebukes the more reckless Vovka for his dangerous behavior. Equally, while Vovka is often one step away from brutalizing their captive, Rubakhin is seen tending to the young Chechen’s needs, loosening his hands to allow him to drink and eat, offering him warm socks after their drenching to help him walk on his damaged feet. In the end, though, the more humane Rubakhin will snuff out this young life when his own is threatened. Each man is ultimately facing his lonely struggle for survival in a hostile world on his own.

In this sense, while The Captive does apparently deal with the Chechen wars, it lays perhaps greater emphasis on these broader themes, just as in Sergei Bodrov’s The Prisoner of the Mountains (Kavkazskii plennik, 1996) the pacifist dimension is perhaps ultimately more important than its treatment of Russian imperialist aggression. Bodrov’s earlier work had derived its core story and structure from Tolstoi’s work of the same title, although he had added much of his own to it, especially in developing the role of Sasha into a completely different being by comparison with the original Kostylin. Equally, Bodrov’s Zhilin is much gentler than Tolstoi’s racist young soldier, while the character of the local girl, Dina, is the film’s true revelation. Uchitel’ is generally much more faithful to Makanin’s story than Bodrov had been to Tolstoi—hardly surprising as the author is here also the chief scriptwriter—but there are some significant divergences. In the original, Boiarkov is already dead at the opening. Turning him into another captive who might be rescued gives the film and its title new dimensions. Most notably, in the story there are clear homoerotic aspects to the relationship between Rubakhin and the stunningly beautiful young captive. Here, while Rubakhin does treat him with solicitous tenderness, and there are some intimate moments when he carries Djamal from the raging torrent, Uchitel’ would seem to have decided that the homosexual theme might have distracted the viewer from the serious treatment he wished to give to his anti-war thematics.

captiveSince its release last year, The Captive and its director have achieved some significant awards and critical success, most notably best director at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Certainly, this is a film with high production values which we should take seriously. As already indicated, locations and cinematography are used highly effectively. Performances are uniformly excellent, including that of Iraklii Mskhalaia who has little to say, and not a great deal to do except look beautiful and moody while flicking his long black locks out of his eyes. Sound is almost entirely naturalistic, with little non-diegetic sound and no music, all of which again reinforces the brooding seriousness of the film. The main exception to this is the closing song, a Chechen lament rendered movingly over the final landscape shots and credits by Raisa Gichaeva (“Old Chechen Woman” in the cast-list), who appeared alongside Galina Vishnevskaia in Sokurov’s Alexandra (Aleksandra, 2007). This song, which has no Russian subtitles, is sung over haunting strings and accordion, and seems to encapsulate the sense of futility and world-weariness, even tragedy of what has gone before.

The Captive is not, though, without its problems. Although a relatively short film, the very inconsequentiality of most of the latter stages does create certain longueurs. As in Makanin’s story the opening scenes provide a context for the later events, but are otherwise unconnected to those events. (In this regard, keeping Boiarkov alive was a sound move). Characters such as Nastia, Gurov and Alibekov are quickly established and vividly portrayed, but then disappear completely. Ultimately, because of the absence of meaningful dialogue and the lack of any back-story for any of the characters we perhaps never really get involved with any of them or what happens to them. Making a film about futility and lack of meaning can be a tricky enterprise, and, in the end, Uchitel’ has made a duller film than he presumably intended to.

Joe Andrew
Keele University, UK

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The Captive, Russia, 2008
Colour, 80 mins
Director: Aleksei Uchitel’
Script: Vladimir Makanin, Timofei Dekin
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Leonid Desiatnikov
Cast: Viacheslav Krikunov, Petr Logachev, Iraklii Mskhalaia, Iuliia Peresil’d, Sergei Umanov, Andrei Fes’kov, Tagir Rakhimov, Dagun Omaev, Raisa Gichaeva, Larisa Shamsadova, Svetlana Dorokhina
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel’
Production: Rock Films (with Camera Studios, Bulgaria)

Aleksei Uchitel’: The Captive (Plennyi, 2008)

reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09