Issue 25 (2009)
Adel’ Al’-Khadad:The Ancient Russians (Rusichi, 2008)
reviewed by Ian Appleby © 2009
Adel’ Al’-Khadad’s feature The Ancient Russians (Rusichi, 2008) aspires in at least two ways to become one of the historical blockbusters familiar from the Putin era that Stephen Norris (2008) has described. Firstly, it takes elements of Russian heritage, which are “repackaged for convenient consumption.” (Norris, 2008) Although the film is labelled a children’s fantasy, it presents a vision of the primordial forefathers (for there is an obvious gender imbalance) of Rus’ —and thus, by extension, of the modern Russian nation—in their struggle for supremacy over enemies both external and internal. Secondly, and more immediately, it clearly hankers to repeat the success of The Wolfhound (Volkodav; dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2007) by parlaying a version of the pre-Kievan past into box-office success. The Wolfhound took $20 million at Russian cinemas, some recompense for the critical scorn leveled at it. By contrast, The Ancient Russians has taken less than $150 000. This public disdain has been matched by the critics, who have likewise devoted very little attention to the film. Curious marketing decisions will hardly have helped publicize the film: the premiere of the partily Iurga-financed film took place in Khanty-Mansiisk as part of celebrations to mark the extraction of the nine-billionth ton of oil in the region. Although some filming has taken place in the region, the majority of locations are around Vyborg. A provincial premiere, however worthy the occasion, is unlikely to pique the interest of metropolitan critics.
This should not, however, lead to the conclusion that the film has been ignored unfairly—its flaws are considerable. Firstly, for all that Oleg Urushev, one of the film’s producers, claims that there are “things to think about, things to ruminate over.” (Vslukh.ru, 2008) Al’-Khadad in fact offers a simplistic story of good versus evil that draws on unreconstructed ideas about gender roles. The opening sequence shows attackers clad in the familiar shorthand of black for bad, while Prince Iziaslav (Sergei Glushko) of the eponymous tribe is clad in white. The conceptual framework of the film appears little more sophisticated: for no reason other, one presumes, than the notion that the rusichi are proto-Russians, the viewer is invited to sympathize with their plight and rail against the villainies of the rival Vepr’ (Petr Barancheev)and his band. Presumably unintentionally, the fact that the only obvious difference between the two sides is the color of their clothes serves to highlight the arbitrary nature of nationalism and the othering process. Unlike the rusichi, Vepr’ and his band are never given an ethnonym. Both the opening and the climactic sequences, however, demonstrate that each side is equally willing to kill and destroy in the name of their leaders. At no point does the film begin to question whether such tit-for-tat patterns of violence and revenge might be better avoided; indeed, the climactic scene concludes with the young rusich heir—portentously named Vlastimir (Sergei Kudriashov)—declaring aloud that he was no longer a child, he had become a warrior. A real man, it is implied, will, nay, should resort to violence to achieve his goals. Given that Vlastimir embodies the proto-Russian nation, the implication is clear.
For all the Manichean simplicity of this moral framework, and, indeed, the essentially simple narrative of a coming-of-age tale (given the one-dimensional characterization, it would be excessive to describe this as a cinematic bildungsroman), the sequence of events unfolds in an opaque manner. This is largely due to the confused way in which the film is edited, which makes it very difficult for the viewer to connect one scene to another. It is not clear, for example, at what point exactly Prince Iziaslav is captured: at one moment he is being dragged behind his captor’s horse, the next he is in hiding in the forest. Nor is it obvious how his companion Goriai (Anton Kolesnikov) escapes, and avoids drowning. It becomes clear, however, that Prince Iziaslav is wounded during the raid that opens the film and, eventually, captured. His son and heir, Vlastimir, has been entrusted to a faithful retainer, Frol (Vladimir Gostiukhin), who spirits him away from the battle. The remainder of the film deals with Vlastimir’s attempts to keep the venal regent Kasian (Maks Maksimov) in check and to rescue his father.
A straightforward plot, on paper, but a combination of the poor editing already mentioned with inadequate characterization renders it far from easy to follow Vlastimir’s motivation for some of his actions, and the loyalties of other characters appear to change at a whim. For instance, Vlastimir embarks on a night-time ride for no discernible reason. A chase develops after a mysterious second nocturnal rider appears, during which Vlastimir is thrown from his horse. His fall is heard by two young men sleeping in the forest, refugees from Vepr’ and his raiders. One of the duo, Pantelei (Sergei Druz’iak), is shown to be of dubious moral fiber by his reluctance to investigate, but the three young men make friends without difficulty. Pantelei, however, subsequently perceives Vlastimir’s helplessness against the regent, and, for the price of a square meal from the latter, switches sides. This does not prevent him swearing a blood oath to assist Vlastimir, which in turn does not deter him from blazing a trail for Kasian’s agent Nikandr (Denis Karasev) to follow. This bewildering see-saw of loyalties is difficult to believe: neither his friendship for Vlastimir nor the combination of self-interest and fear that, presumably, fuel his alliance with the regent are convincingly developed.
It is difficult to argue that the film interrogates notions around masculinity and comradeship, they are, rather, presented as givens. Masculinity is defined as physical courage and strength, allied to a certain asceticism. The disloyal regent Kasian, his agent Nikandr and the enemy leader Vepr’ all indulge in gluttony, while it is rich food that seals Pantelei’s betrayal. Meanwhile the imprisoned Prince Iziaslav refuses food. Much amusement is derived by Vlastimir and his companions from the nervousness of Goriai, a young man who had been taken prisoner with Iziaslav, yet contrives to escape. His hair has turned grey almost overnight. Devotion to duty, be it Frol’s protection of Vlastimir, or the latter’s determination to rescue his father, is contrasted favorably with Pantelei’s wavering. This version of masculinity is portrayed as something unquestionably to be aspired to.
It is striking how much store the positive characters in the film set by spiritual matters. Their spiritual guide is a white witch (Al’bert Filozov) who lives in the woods. Even the regent, who scorns the old man’s clairvoyance, cannot shake off a belief that his death has been foretold; his mounting terror becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as that staple of Russian folklore Ded Moroz has Snegurochka, the witch has a granddaughter, Nastia (Kristina Prokopovich), who nurses Vlastimir back to health and also falls in love with him. The mutual feeling is sealed by an innocent kiss on the cheek. The implication of the rusichi being thus divinely chosen could scarcely be clearer. They are, however, also observant of religious forms. Just as director Peter Jackson could not resist a dwarf-throwing joke in the otherwise straight-faced Two Towers (2007), it is difficult not to detect here the smirk of post-modern irony in the act of worship: both Iziasliav and Vlastimir are literal tree-huggers. Many conservative articulations of Russian nationalism invoke Orthodoxy. While the pagan setting of this film renders this impossible, “our heroes” are not only proto-Russian, they are also proto-Orthodox.
This undercurrent of mysticism might be thought to detract from any sense of historicity in a more serious film, but this movie, for all its portentousness, lacks any genuine gravitas. It does not shy, for example, from crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning as Vepr’ taunts the gods. Only merciful Providence, it seems, prevents the actor from releasing the clichéd “Bwa-ha-ha-haa” laugh beloved of those who would rule the world. More subtly, rusich territory is depicted in a bright color palette, while Vepr’’s domain is dark and glowering. In the world of The Ancient Russians, Pagan practice is not merely religious observance, but actual magic: both the white witch and Vepr’’s tame black witch (Aleksandr Trofimov) are clairvoyant and communicate with the spirits. Nastia casts a protective spell over Vlastimir’s small band. This sequence, it should be noted, strikes a markedly uncomfortable contrast with the rest of the film, with its overt allusions to sexual energy forming a jarring departure from the peculiar “boys’ own” innocence of the rest of the film, while suspicions of exploitation cannot be dismissed given that Vlastimir is not, in contrast, required to strip in slow-motion for his tree-hugging scene. Sexism aside, though, the conventions of the fantasy genre perhaps require challenge if the portrayal of a young woman in charge of her sexuality provokes comment while depictions of graphic dismemberment in fight scenes go unnoticed. Certainly, it seems neither case is an entirely comfortable fit for a film marketed at children.
Nastia is, in fact, by some distance the most interesting and complex character. She is the only female character of any importance – indeed, the only other women shown are extras. One is preparing fish, the other holding an infant out to be kissed, which reinforces the idea that the film presents quite traditional views of gender roles. Indeed, it is Nastia who cooks, and tends the wounds of the men she travels with. In their company, she is demure if not downright submissive. Yet Nastia’s confidence in and control of her own sexuality seems at odds with this traditional view, as does an artful slip of the tongue which implies that she is, in fact, more powerful a magician than her grandfather. It is she who elicits a confession from Pantelei as to his double-dealing. Ultimately, however, even when she does take charge of a situation, she does so to serve Vlastimir. It was argued above that, through the supernatural abilities of her grandfather, Nastia’s love for Vlastimir was meant to convey “chosen people” status for the proto-Russians. Given these implications of power, then, Nastia herself might be understood as Mother Russia in her younger years: her union with Vlastimir will bring forth the new nation.
The Ancient Russians, it must be said, is a disappointing film. The technical flaws in its production and editing, the lack of ambition in the action sequences, and the poorly-developed characters make for a dissatisfying cinematic experience. It is of more interest as another example of the tendency to assert equality with, if not superiority over, Western cinema, by applying a genre “validated” by Western cinema (in this case, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the obvious precursor) to specifically Russian source material, insofar as the creation of Kievan Rus’ is closely intertwined with narratives of Russian origins, and thus appealing to Russian patriotic sentiment (Norris, 2008). While cinematic debate around Russian identity has been under way since at least the Khrushchev era (Gillespie, 2002: 143), Putin-era historical films tend to come down firmly on the side of a conservative articulation that leverages history in order to claim authenticity. The Ancient Russians clearly fits into this trend with its promotion of spirituality, traditional gender roles and the notion of a just war as “true” Russian values. Further, it tries to trace this notion of authenticity right back to the non plus ultra: the mythical founders of the Russian nation. Although this is a sophisticated ploy, the execution is fatally clumsy.
University of Manchester
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Gillespie, David, “Identity and the Past in Recent Russian Cinema” in Catherine Fowler, The European Cinema Reader, Routledge, 2002, pp.143-162.
Norris, Stephen M., “Packaging the Past: Cinema and Nationhood in the Putin Era,” KinoKultura 21 (2008).
“‘Rusichi’: film, posle kotorogo ne stydno smotret’ v glaza rebenku,” Vslukh.ru, 9 September 2008,
The Ancient Russians, Russia, 2008
Color, 90 minutes.
Director: Adel’ Al’-Khadad
Script: Sergei Rusakov, Viktor Miniaev
Cinematography: Andrei Shepelev
Music: Georgii Zheriakov
Cast: Sergei Glushko, Petr Barancheev, Sergei Kudriashov, Anton Kolesnikov, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Maks Maksimov, Denis Karasev, Al’bert Filozov, Kristina Prokopovich, Aleksandr Trofimov, Sergei Druz’iak
Producers: Vitalii Sidorenko, Oleg Urushev
Production: Rakurs, Iurga-fil’m, Solivs
Adel’ Al’-Khadad:The Ancient Russians (Rusichi, 2008)
reviewed by Ian Appleby © 2009