KinoKultura: Issue 26 (2009)

Characters and Circumstances: Notes on the Competition Program of the 31st Moscow IFF

By Christina Stojanova (U of Regina)

If there is a common aesthetic denominator of the competition films presented at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival (19-28 June 2009), it would be the predominance of mythos (plot) over ethos (character). While most of the characters were ordinary people—that is, “responding to our sense of common humanity” and not distinguished by “superior power of action and intelligence”—the extraordinary circumstances were removed either in time, space or in degree from “the canons of probability that we would find in our own daily experience” (Frye, 34). In other words, the Moscow competition films were about the predominance of the plot, the soul of the play, and stood or fell upon its intricacies, overshadowing the particular psychological and moral make-up of its dramatis personae. Whether good or bad, they suffered more as a consequence of an external act or happenstance, usually defined as destiny or fate in ancient Greek plays and romantic (melo)-drama, and in modern times as historical inevitability or social determinism.

The sense of entrapment in these films was additionally enhanced by the prevalent arrangement of the incidents as a guest of sorts, usually leading nowhere and leaving the protagonists either dead or much worse off.

As is to be expected in this line of thought, the most intriguing films in competition were Russian: Aleksandr Proshkin’s Miracle (Chudo); Nikolai Dostal’’s Petia on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvo nebesnoe), or in Russian: Kira Muratova’s FIPRESCI winner Melody for a Barrel-Organ (Melodiia dlia sharmanki, Ukraine). These three highly awarded films were closely followed by strong works made in Georgia (Mediator [Mediatori], dir. Dito Tsintsadze, co-produced with Germany), in Hungary (Prank [Tréfa], dir. Péter Gárdos); in Bulgaria (Crayfish [Raci], dir. Ivan Cherkelov) and in Poland (Little Moscow [Mala Moskwa], dir. Waldemar Krzystek). The fact that the youngest post-Communist directors in competition were born in 1957 points to the fact that, after nearly half a century of totalitarian rule and twenty years of misguided reforms, the filmmakers from the former Soviet bloc countries have become proven experts in prioritizing mythos over ethos, i.e., in interpreting the actions and motivations of their characters as an intrinsic result of overbearing socio-political pressures. 

Certainly, the Iranian film Bibi (dir. Hassan Yektapanah), the Israeli Burning Mooki (Mooki bo'era, dir. Lena and Slava Chaplin) and the Italian As God Commands (Come Dio comanda, dir.Gabriele Salvatores) stood their ground both professionally and artistically as original variations of the same aesthetic approach, featuring characters emasculated by unforgiving social and political forces, roughing up their lives. Even less interesting films were playing up the role of historical and social circumstance at the expense of their characters’ psychological make up or free will.

The Russian Characters

chudo One of the competition favorites, Miracle, could be viewed as a paradigmatic example of the aesthetic features mentioned above. Set in the hopeful days around the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech exposing Stalin’s atrocities, it tells the unusual story of a girl named Zoia and is based on an allegedly authentic occurrence in a small industrial town near Samara (formerly Kuibyshev), known as the “Zoia’s Standing”. A handsome factory worker, a loyal member of the Young Communist League (Komsomol) and a militant atheist who forces her mother to take all the icons off the walls and give them to the local church, Zoia (Mariia Burova) turns into a motionless statue after attempting a sacrilegious dance with the only icon left behind—that of Saint Nicholas, known as the miracle-maker (chudotvorets). This event has a ghastly ripple effect, causing death and major disturbance throughout the seedy industrial settlement, throwing the Party and the KGB into a deep crisis, and revealing in the process their unholy alliances with the clergy and the media. Four months later, around Easter-time, the crisis gets suddenly resolved in a truly deus ex machina style by Chairman Khrushchev himself when his personal plane makes an emergency landing in the area. Following a higher clergy’s advice, the Chairman’s officials find a “male virgin,” the only one capable of bringing Zoia back to life by wiggling the icon out of her hands. However, during her standing she has herself turned into a passionate believer and a miracle-maker. Therefore is sent to a mental hospital to prevent any further spreading of “Christian superstition,” thus highlighting the limits of Khrushchev’s liberalism.

Even such a snapshot of the elaborate novelistic narrative makes transparent the  compelling social and political allusions of this skillful rendition of “Zoia’s Standing” by Iurii Arabov, one of the most versatile Russian scriptwriters. In his turn, Proshkin presents Zoia’s ordeal as a straightforward—superbly acted and visualized—parable of the dramatic fate of Russian spirituality, or the Russian soul, under Communism: first forced into stupefying bondage by Stalin’s drive for modernization and atheism, then briefly released by Khrushchev’s thaw, only to be symbolically confined to a mental hospital, which, for many years, contained those who sought freedom of expression.

chudoHowever, as in any allegorical discourse, double entendre is the name of the game: on one hand, the miraculous event takes a life of its own, triggering a chain of unusual occurrences and coincidences. On the other hand, however—not unlike Khrushchev’s proverbial “liberalization”—the miracle sets off a major exercise in ideological hypocrisy where the state manages to have it both ways: to keep it under tight control and also use it as a means of distraction from the serious social and economic problems of the day. This complex plot divides the characters not into heroes and villains, but into candid believers and manipulative cynics, or—to use the already forgotten discourse of the day—into dissidents and authorities, or “us” and “them.” The infamous slyness of the latter serves as a narrative motor, epitomized by the KGB agent (Sergei Makovetskii). A perfidious agent-provocateur, his task is to curb and derail the local priest and the regional journalist in their attempts to interpret the miracle according to their conscience and faith. While his demonic allure is deliberately sabotaged by the sardonically handled artificial eye—a symbol of his dubious vigilance—and Makovetskii’s over-the-top acting style, Khrushchev’s lame impersonation undermines further—and quite spontaneously at that—the myth of the Great Trailblazer of Liberalization.

By hook or by crook, the cynics in power put to a severe test the resilience of the believers (or the dissidents) to act as moral and rational agents vis-à-vis the miracle. Thus the theological ambiguity of Zoia’s suffering—the Orthodox church does not generally sanction belief in miracles involving lay individuals—becomes an essential staple of the agent’s strategy to destroy the devout local priest, turning him—if not into a cynic, then into a tragic disbeliever, who hastily gives up on his church, his family and his confused teenage son. The son bears out the weakness of his father’s faith by joining the police. And it is this priest’s son-turned-police cadet who becomes the ‘male virgin’ to break Zoia’s spell in yet another transparent parable of the short-lived miracle of Khrushchev’s Thaw and the way it was brought to an end…

The KGB agent’s active tampering with what the regional journalist Nikolai (Konstantin Khabenskii) believes to be his noble quest for the truth of Zoia’s Standing shakes this philandering and somewhat spoilt news-maker out of his self-delusional complacency and forces him to realize his true cynical nature, disguised as that of a believer. After all, it was he who Zoia was waiting for before impatiently grabbing St Nicholas’s—his namesake’s—icon for her ill-fated dance. After the spiritual demise of the priest and the journalist, the only successful quest for the truth—most likely due to its divine serendipity—is that of Zoia herself, and therefore her transformation of a cynic into believer is most severely punished.

Kira Muratova’s Melody for a Barrel-Organ is a baroque winter tale, situated in a contemporary, non-identified Ukrainian city. Structured like a Renaissance picaresque—a satiric quest with a moral message and a tragic twist—it features two orphaned children as the impoverished rascals or the picaros and their doomed voyage through a corrupt society.

sharmankaFollowing the death of their mother, eight-year-old Nikita and twelve-year-old Alena—in an attempt to avoid being sent to different orphanages by the soulless Social Services—embark on a search for their long-gone respective fathers. It is Christmas time, it is cold, and the two, far from picture-perfect children (sickly pale and somewhat overweight) are on their own in the world of post-Soviet capitalism, whose savage reality is ever so slightly but very effectively suspended for the film. The archetypal symbols of modern speed and greed—a railway station, a casino and a supermarket—are therefore ominously defamiliarized by the tight frame composition and the perennially drifting artificial snow, along with the grotesque exaggeration of characters and acting, which further enhance their disconcerting effect.

The story is loosely reminiscent of the Russian fairy tale about the orphaned Little Sister Alenushka and Little Brother Ivanushka, stalled on their solitary road to living happily ever after first by Ivanushka’s impatience—he turns into a little goat after drinking water from a goat’s hoof-mark despite Alenushka’s passionate warnings; when happiness seems to be at hand with Alenushka’s marriage to a rich merchant there appears a wicked witch who tries to kill them both. Finally, thanks to the timely intervention of a loyal servant, who exposes the witch’s designs, Ivanushka turns back into a happy boy and the drowned Alenushka is resuscitated as even happier and prettier bride to her merchant.

alenushkaWhile Vladimir Zuev’s script has dispensed with the miraculous occurrences and the happy ending, it is obviously greatly indebted to Alenushka’s (diminutive of Alena) self-sacrificial sisterly love, eternalized by the famous painting Alenushka (1881) by Viktor Vasnetsov. There is a rich, obviously nouveau riche merchant (Oleg Tabakov) in Muratova’s film as well, but he appears toward the finale and is no savior: despite his intellectual softness and amicability, he is equally excited over buying a brand leather bag as he is about saving the hungry and cold Nikita, whom he finds huddled against the doors of the posh supermarket. The merchant-savior is, however, in a hurry to catch a plane and has no time to hear Nikita’s confused story about their voyage and most importantly, his worries about his sister, who has been gone for so long inside the store. The merchant also happens to be married to a witch (Renata Litvinova), who is actually very beautiful and not wicked at all, and does come to the supermarket to take Nikita home. Self-consciously decked for the occasion in her diamond tiara and expensive fur cape, she is too impatient to look for the boy who has just been kicked out by some zealous security guard and ends up doing some Christmas shopping instead.

As a matter of fact, none of the people whom the children encounter in their macabre quest are really wicked, but just preoccupied with pursuing their good life—blabbing on cell phones, sleeping in luxury lounges, eating, but mostly spending money in casinos and supermarkets—to really notice the two destitute children. Those who do notice them are either, like the nouveau riche couple, too good to be true, or too real to be good, like the woman who disappears with the five-hundred Euro note they have accidentally found; or too harsh, like the overzealous supermarket manager, who daunts Alena for stealing food for her starving brother. In the end, while Alena’s misfortune is being sealed by criminal charges, little Nikita dies of exposure in the attic of a house under reconstruction just hours before being discovered by the contractors, whose foreman appears to be Alena’s missing father.

As in every Christmas tale, salvation through a happy coincidence seems always within reach, but as in the classical melodrama, it is somehow always put off by bad timing or bad communication. Maybe in an attempt to make up for this endemic injustice and to demonstrate that the most important things in life are often lost in the details we have no patience for, Muratova’s narrative is very detailed and its pace deliberately slow. Obviously this is her way of making us engage with the tragic story evolving on screen— if not as citizens, then at least as compassionate and thoughtful viewers and listeners.

petyaThe eponymous quest of Petia “on his way to heaven” is an exercise in the much tooted post-modern irony in presenting an important event from the unusual perspective of the village fool, not unlike Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1966), the celebrated interpretation of Hamlet from the point of view of two secondary characters standing in the wings, thus changing the mode of Shakespeare’s original from tragic to darkly ironic. Despite the title, there is no quest per se in Dostal’’s film, where Petia (Egor Pavlov), a handsome young man with the looks of a movie star and the intelligence of a five year old, goes about his weird daily routine imagining to be the traffic controller of the remote town of Kandalaksha (near Murmansk)—a game everyone around happily joins in—until one day, being mistaken for a forced-labor camp fugitive, is accidentally shot to death. And there is no explicit message to boot this pseudo-quest either, as the film offers an unexpectedly rosy-cheeked picture of the town, whose inhabitants are predominantly KGB personnel and other employees of the newly built GULag camp.

The story takes place in the fateful days before and after Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 but its timing does not seem to affect the action. The fleeting references to a number of serious, even tragic social and political issues that have otherwise deeply marked this era are offered in a deliberately non-engaging manner. The virulent anti-Semitism, triggered by the on-going trial against Stalin’s “conniving” doctors; the election travesty where people choose “freely” one candidate, appointed from above; the nascent nuclear program, based on forced labor; the ongoing bias against “bourgeois elements” and persecution of “enemies of the people” as well as the abject poverty and alcoholism, are casually interwoven into a deceitfully normalized backdrop, where even the newly –arrived GULag prisoners seem quite content. As a result, the society looks as homogeneous and united as a Socialist Realist poster from the period, with auspicious historical tensions removed from the almost plot-less narrative.

petyaIn the seemingly random selection of serene episodes even Petia’s presence becomes non-essential as the focus is shifted to other, more intriguing characters and their fascinating activities: the KGB colonel, his gorgeous wife, who also happens to be a doctor, and her current lover, a handsome Jewish colleague. However, in a typically Dostalian manner, while we hear his virtuoso piano playing, we hardly get a glimpse of her prospective lover, the newly arrived engineer. Preoccupied with their privileged life of lavish parties, sex, jealousy and infidelity, these ‘secondary’ personages seem as disastrously oblivious to the enfolding depravity.

Dostal’’s style, however, relies heavily on the viewer’s ability to imagine the untold—and deliberately left outside of the frame—dark side of this sun-lit and snow-covered idyll, and draw the necessary conclusions from the sharp contrast. Unfortunately, his sophisticated tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, targeting omnipresent human complacency, the propensity for self-delusion in the name of a good life and conformity to any and all circumstances—which ultimately cause the death of Petia, the film’s only innocent soul—might be lost on viewers without preliminary knowledge of the tragic intricacies of Soviet history.

Against the Intricacies of East European History

The competition films from Central-Eastern Europe presented a variety of emasculated characters up against overwhelmingly hostile circumstances and evil protagonists—historical as well as contemporary—uncannily similar to those discussed above. With its propensity to resolve grave social tensions on the private terrain of home and family, melodrama remains the most effective vehicle for displaying the destructive, even murderous stand-off between the individual and his overwhelming environment.

malamoskwaThe Polish melodrama Little Moscow tackles the age-old tension between Russia as historical usurper and Poland as a perennial victim of imperial appetites, mediating this conflict through the impossible love affair of a Russian officer’s wife and a Polish officer. The chain of tragic coincidences shaping their misfortunes is set in motion by the KGB, the strictest custodian of Soviet state interests and those of its military contingent, stationed on the “fraternal” Polish soil. Obviously, “national security” considerations override far and wide the individual rights of the two lovers to live and have a child together, and even those of the cuckolded husband, willing to let his beloved wife go. Yet when she tenaciously refuses to comply with the KGB representative’s “advice” to surrender her love in the name of her country, hell breaks loose as the authorities fear an unwarranted precedent.

Following the logic of the genre, the destinies of the three main characters are sealed by bad timing and frustrated communications due to Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Although some forty years later the cause of the woman's death (a KGB inspired and executed assassination) remains suspected suicide, her daughter—thanks to the noble upbringing of the self-sacrificial Russian husband—finds the strength to honor her mother’s passion by forgiving her and by reconciling with her real Polish father.

prankIn the extravagantly visualized Prank (cinematographer László Seregi), a group of rebellious teen-age boys of a private Austro-Hungarian Catholic school try to negotiate their individual rights and freedom in a similarly restricted and repressive environment, but their timid attempts at bildungs-like quests are eventually stifled.

The kids are caught in the crossfire between two opposite pedagogic camps, epitomized by two of their younger tutors: while the “good” one is an ardent proponent of liberal pedagogic ideas, based on personal freedom and responsibility, it is the “bad” one—an open supporter of corporal punishment and nasty tactics, pitting the kids against each other—who eventually prevails. Yet according to the film, the most sinister reason for his notoriety is that his methods are quite in tune with the looming spirit of doom—enhanced by references to the recent sinking of Titanic—on the eve of the Great War and the demise of Austro-Hungary. Eerily reminiscent in tenor and time-setting of Michael Haneke Palme D’Or-winning The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band, 2009), implying that the malice of children is the surest sign of pending social depravity, Prank  meticulously examines how moral and physical callousness brings out the worst in the students, making them turn against their teachers, and each other, and ultimately killing the weakest in their midst.

Through the Post-Communist Wilderness

Against the background of the ensnaring laws of destructive historical determinism, the reasons for the moral and physical ruin of the characters from Crayfish and Mediator are less clear. Unlike the ill-fated lovers (Little Moscow) and the unredeemable kids (Prank), the characters of these contemporary works succumb willingly to the forces of evil—that is, to the proliferating criminal structures, national and international, and their henchmen. Set along the fault line of the post-Communist wilderness, stretching from the Caucuses to the Balkans, Crayfish and Mediator are very good examples of two of the most common post-Communist genres—that of the popular “Mafiosi thriller” and the art-house “miserabilism” (see Stojanova 2006 and forthcoming).

mediatorIn Mediator, the eponymous protagonist is the ex-officio messenger of a vaguely mentioned secret service conglomerate in pursuit of a renegade insider, and appears as a deus ex machina only at a few key moments to clarify the otherwise rather intricate plot. The narrative features another half a dozen hardened criminals, foreign and local, as well as members of the Tbilisi police involved in a Russian-doll-style conspiracy, at the very bottom of which are the Georgians. The only incorrupt soul seems to be the local police inspector, but he is hastily taken off the case by his boss—an obvious accomplice of the mysterious Mediator—under the pretext that he does not speak English. Overall, this skillfully composed narrative reveals a rather diverse portrait of Tbilisi’s demi-monde. The criminal ring leader—the Georgian connection so to speak—is an older ex-pat in charge of a young man and a woman, surprisingly intelligent and good-looking, who are allotted the dirtiest job of torture, dangerous conspiracy and messy killings. There is also the ubiquitous Russian prostitute—a genre fixture—accidentally implicated in one of the killings. And then there is the inspector’s drug-addicted mistress also happens to be the ex-wife of the ex-pat, as well as a few other ordinary citizens.

As a belated offshoot of the Mafiosi Thriller—on the wane since Aleksei Balabanov’s hilarious pastiche Blind Man's Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005) all but wiped the genre he himself successfully propelled with Brother (Brat, 1997)—Mediator appears in a time of serious economic troubles, political and ethnic instability in Georgia. Unlike Russia and Poland, however, where the Mafiosi Thriller flourished, the former Soviet republic has only recently attracted international attention and made this versatile co-production with Germany viable. Yet while celebrated genre specimen like Balabanov's Brother and Brother 2, the TV mini series Law of the Lawless (Brigada, dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2002), the Polish Pigs (Psy, Wladislaw Pasikowski, 1992)—to name but a few—did exploit commercially the violence and the blood that go with telling stories about the post-Communist organized crime, they were also concerned with the ethical repercussions this phenomenon posed to their respective post-Communist societies, and therefore introduced  lonely vigilante heroes (sometime renegade Mafiosi themselves) as the terrorized society's last hope against the forces of evil.

Mediator, on the other hand—with the post-modern nonchalance of a self-reflexive genre redaction, relying on virtuoso narrative techniques of flashbacks and sophisticated re-interpretation of identical episodes from different points of view—does not even bother with ethical wherewithal. Instead of ruthless Mafiosi, the film casts the killers as existential victims of dire circumstances, but fails to explain what those are. Indeed, amongst the graffiti-covered dilapidated pre-fab high-rises, the seedy life in and around the capital is not very attractive for young enterprising people, what with chronic unemployment, criminality, and general ennui that the good life is elsewhere—usually far away from Tbilisi, and westward. But these fall far short of building a solid case on behalf of cold-blooded killers, whose victims all the more are small-time desperados like themselves.

As the only candidate for the role of the handsome lonely hero who saves the day, Mediator presents an archetypal middle-aged looser—the overweight, sexually frustrated police inspector, who does not even speak English (sic!) and succumbs to the charms of the Russian prostitute. And who, unlike his famously non-illustrious counterpart Colombo, fails to rise to the occasion and carry the day. The film, however, does introduce a lonely handsome hero, albeit not as a savior but as a hit man, à la Alain Delon in Le Samurai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967), and tries very hard to construe him as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstances wrought by the will of his mighty overseas bosses. Despite his manly intellectual allure, however, the actor (Merab Ninidze) is hard put to convince the audiences that his character is indeed more than just a killer for hire. For no amount of existential angst could compensate the irony that his hamartia (or tragic flaw) seems to be uncompromising greed and selfishness—hardly redeeming qualities even in the Melville tradition, where the flawed hero at least provokes his own death as the only way out of his messed-up life.  

crayfishCrayfish exposes the mechanism of how Doka and Bonza—otherwise good guys from good families, but too lazy, too supercilious or just too inept to find and hold a decent job—fall into the Mafia trap. It is also the only film under scrutiny here, where the incidents (or the plot) are not just an “intrinsic result of overbearing socio-political pressures,” but deliberately arranged by the evil protagonists over the head of the two principal characters, who are being used by two Mafiosi-turned-businessmen as crayfish-bait (hence the film’s title) in a murderous scheme that some mistrustful businessmen hatch out to test one another. Doka (Phillip Avramov) is paid by one of them to make a phone call from a moving train to the driver of a red van when in closest proximity, which unbeknownst to him triggers an explosion, killing the driver who happens to be his best friend Bonza (Valeri Yordanov), hired by the other businessman.

In a rare exception to the principles of “miserabilism”—and to his own—the director depicts with sarcastic gusto the conniving bosses as the source of evil by casting Rangel Vulchanov, one of the best Bulgarian directors from the older generation as the more enterprising of the two. Vulchanov’s antics (he is also a versatile comedian) sit well with the tongue-in-cheek apathy of the two rising stars of young Bulgarian cinema, enacting the drama of two close friends whose quest for easy money and lack of real rapport ends up in tragedy.
The tendency to present murderous Mafiosi and other good-for-nothing types as imprudent products of a social accident—dark knights of sorts (Mediator), or grotesque freaks (Crayfish)—is close to the quintessential feature of “miserabilism” to never show (let alone analyze) the source of the enfolding social evil, but only study its hideous results. There is one major difference: the Mafiosi Thriller thriller targets the winners, while “miserabilism” aims at their tangible victims, the down-and-outs, those unwilling or unable to comply with the laws of the nascent capitalist jungle. In this light, Mediator and Crayfish could be read as hybrids of both genres, with the former cunningly trying to present its accomplished criminals as reluctant wretches, while the latter revels masochistically in the failure of wretches to become successful criminals.

Christina Stojanova
University of Regina

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990)

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, “Minnelli and melodrama,” in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film (London: British Film Institute, 1987), pp. 70-74.

Stojanova, Christina, “The Politics of Gender and Genre in Post-Communist Cinemas” in Traditions in World Cinema, ed. By Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, & Steven Jay Schneider, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 103-107.

Stojanova, Christina, “A Gaze From Hell: Eastern European Horror Cinema Revisitedin European Nightmares, edited by P. Allmer, D. Huxley and E. Brick, London: Wallflower Press, forthcoming.


Christina Stojanova© 2009

Comment on this article via the LJ Forum


Updated: 30 Sep 09