Issue 24 (2009)
Aleksandr Mel’nik: Terra Nova (Novaia zemlia, 2008)
reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2009
Despite the fact that it is billed as a parable about the resilience and importance of Orthodox Christian values in the modern world, it would be a mistake to sit down to view Terra Nova in expectation of a meditative two hours of spiritual uplift. Watching it before or after a meal is also not advised. This directorial debut of Aleksandr Mel’nik tells a story that begins with the frank portrayal of grotesque violence and devolves from there. Terra Nova is based on a screenplay by Arif Aliev, whose other recent credits include the 2007 blockbusters 1612 and Mongol—it was in connection with the latter, one supposes, that the writer came into contact with Mel’nik, who was producer on that project. Although the director’s other undertakings include serving as the head of the “Fund of Andreevskii Flag,” which sponsors “international moral-spiritual happenings,” his film was nevertheless judged “unwholesome, dangerous and detrimental” for “a majority of viewers” at a trial meeting of a proposed Social Council for Television Morality. (“Fil’m…”) At the 2008 Kinotavr film festival in Sochi Terra Nova stirred up a lot of discussion, partly for its outsized budget of twelve million dollars, but mostly for its depictions of violence.
The film is set in a “near future,” when severe overcrowding of prisons brought on by a worldwide abolition of capital punishment has led an international coalition to launch a devilish experiment. The most heinous criminals, guilty of multiple murders, are offered a chance to leave prison and join a penal colony: “You’ll never believe your luck! Just sign this form here.” The first contingent of convicts to be offered this chance at a new life are Russians. Shipped off to an uninhabited island in the far north in the hold of a tanker outfitted with makeshift cells, they are landed on a scrap of unforgiving, rocky coastline that has been outfitted with crude barracks. As their transport guards continue to train guns on them, an English-speaking blonde (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and her techno-bureaucratic team of specialists inform the convicts that are being left with supplies for three months to fend for themselves. A buoy just offshore in the chop has been fitted with a red button that can be pressed to summon the overseers back: if anyone wants out of the “project,” he can go back to prison.
As soon as they are left to their own devices, the criminals put the axes and other tools that have been generously supplied by the project administration to good use—slicing one another up in a bloody showdown of Russians vs. Chechens, followed by a free-for-all that subsides only after serious mayhem has been wreaked. In this initial wave of gore, an attempt to hit the red button on the buoy manages to break it. Meanwhile, the man that the camera has been identifying all along as the main character, Zhilin (Konstantin Lavronenko), manages to pack up some supplies and slip away into the wilderness. His life as a total hermit does not last long, however. His former cell-mate, Sipa (Andrei Fes’kov) manages to join him. Zhilin and Sipa represent opposite faces of crime: the former is serving a life sentence for murdering the flight-controllers who were responsible for a plane crash in which his family died, while the latter killed a number of people out of curiosity to measure the length of their intestines (it turns out that this intimate human dimension is not proportional to weight). These scenes, it must be said, are among the loveliest in the movie—crane shots and aerial sequences involving stark, bleak landscapes of stone, lichen, mountains and ocean, huge dramatic skies and lighting effects, with tiny human figures trapped in the stones. It’s almost enough to make the entire film worth it.
Almost, but not quite. Eventually, the unlikely bedfellows Zhilin and Sipa are forced by the onset of winter to return to the staging area of the project. They arrive to find that the Lord-of-the-Flies scenario has taken several turns for the worse since their departure. A plague of lemmings has devoured most of the food supplies. Under the leadership of the ferocious murderer Obez’ian (in translation, “Monkey”—played by Pavel Sborshchikov), a minority of convicts have confined the majority to a makeshift prison, forcing them to play a version of musical chairs in which the loser each day becomes dinner for all the rest. Here, the film hits a true peak of gross nastiness—punctuated by memorable moments such as the long close up of a man’s throat being cut, with blood welling up and pouring out of the wound, or a sequence showing a man’s body as it is butchered up and thrown into a cauldron.
Zhilin and Sipa are thrown in with the human cattle. But true to his name, Zhilin (whose moniker is derived from “life” and references the survivor prisoners of the literary-filmic tradition that began with Tolstoi’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus”) stages a revolt that ends with Obez’ian’s death and the establishment of a more equitable social system among the remaining convicts. At this point, the editing gets a little choppy and the plot gets rather hazy. The convicts drag the remains of a crashed sea-plane back to their camp and somehow manage to repair it—Russian men are known for their Levsha-skills, but this feat is well-nigh miraculous. The techno-bureaucratic blonde reappears—three months have apparently passed—and delivers new supplies and a new contingent of “settlers”: this time from the United States. The new convicts, led by a pure distillation of Russian views of American criminals in the form of the large, bald and black Sewing Dude (Tommy “Tiny” Lister), reject Zhilin’s offer of peaceful coexistence and immediately launch a bloody attempt to massacre the Russians. At this, the blonde and her military cronies decide that the experiment has gotten out of control and decide to pull the plug on the whole mess—by strafing everyone with machine-gun fire. Zhilin and a few comrades escape death and fly off into the sunset in their absurd little plane. Sipa throws himself from a cliff.
The allegorical thrust of Terra Nova cannot be called subtle, but it may certainly be described as incoherent. On the one hand, the film clearly references the Soviet history of collective violence, labor colonies and prison camps. It is intended as a warning against the inhumanity of technological regimes, capable of evoking the beast within man. As the film shows rather bluntly, the most beastly state possible is not the simple every-man-for-himself melee. Rather, the outer limit of atrocity lies a step or two beyond such inchoate violence, at the place where murder is channeled by iniquitous regimes into engineered brutality and cruelty.
On the other hand, rather than offering any analytical purchase on the outstanding problem of Stalinist mass violence and collective guilt, this film performs an ideological bait and switch. For Terra Nova identifies the “actual” culprit of the advanced, modern brutality that it depicts not as any Russian social pathology, but instead as “the international coalition”—composed of heartless, English-speaking blonde villains who think nothing of treating Russians like lab rats along with blacks in their inhuman “humanist” experiments. In this, the film presents a cartoon version of well-worn anti-Enlightenment arguments in support of a crude Russian nationalist morality play. As Mel’nik would have it, the “true” criminals are not the mass murderers incarcerated in this penal colony, but rather fallen western societies, their individualism and their rule of law, which are aligned against the Russian spiritual qualities that rise superior in the apocalyptic end in order to save Russian souls—even the souls of convicted murderers.
Kevin M. F. Platt
University of Pennsylvania
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“Fil’m ‘Novaia Zemlia’—ne dlia vsekh, schitaiut v RPTs,” RIA Novosti, 18 August 2008.
Terra Nova, Russia, 2008
Color, 143 min.
Scriptwriter: Arif Aliev
Director: Aleksandr Mel’nik
Director of Photography: Il’ia Demin
Composers: Gleb Matveichuk, Andrei Komissarov
Production Design: Sergei Gudilin, Vladimir Donskov
Costume Design: Giuliumzhan Beishenova
Sound: Dmitrii Nazarov
Editing: Oleg Raevskii
Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Andrei Fes’kov, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Marat Basharov, Sergei Zhigunov, Evgenii Titov, Pavel Sborshchikov, Tommi Lister, Sergei Koltakov, Viktor Zhalsanov, Vladislav Abashin, Zaza Chichanidze, Nikolai Stotskii, Igor’ Pismennyi
Producer: Anton Mel’nik
Production: Producers’ Centre “Andreevskii Flag”
Aleksandr Mel’nik: Terra Nova (Novaia zemlia, 2008)
reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2009