Issue 35 (2012)

Konstantin Buslov: Loot (Bablo, 2011)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2012

babloWhat connection is there between Lev Tolstoy’s final novella, The Forged Coupon (Fal’shivyi kupon, 1911), and Konstantin Buslov’s first feature film, the gangster black comedy, Loot (Bablo, 2011)? The Forged Coupon is remarkably cinematic with its episodic structure, strong, bold character sketches, a criss-crossing, circular narrative structure, emblematic situations and, in the spirit of Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, an attempt to capture the tortured soul of all of Russia - from the Tsar to the lowliest peasant in one highly morally conscious epic tale. Similarly, Loot is a multi-stranded, relay narrative of numerous colorful episodes that connect disparate groups across all social strata all captured by the contemporary zeitgeist of corruption, crime and hope in the salvation of money that appears out of nowhere. The Forged Coupon, described by Viktor Shklovskii as “the first film script written in the world,” (Shklovskii 1982) has been adapted or reimagined numerous times for the cinema: The Counterfeit Note (Chardynin, 1913), Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheines (Viertel, 1926), L’Argent (Bresson, 1983), Paha Maa (Louhimies, 2005). And now without direct attribution, but with clear resonances comes Loot, an expertly crafted crime genre film that borrows narratively and thematically from Tolstoy's last tale.

The Forged Coupon is such an important work for film history as it gave rise to the recent fascination with modular, complex narratives through its sophisticated structural model of an accursed object being passed on from one person to the next in a kind of enchanted relay where only an extreme non-vengeful response can break the evil chain and lead to redemption. It influenced the narrative structure of myriads of films about objects passing through history and their impact on their temporary owners, objects that range from cars (Kopeika, 2002) to violins (Red Violin, 1998) as well as the transitory moments of connections in the films of Preminger, Altman and Shakhnazarov.

babloLoot follows the spirit of Tolstoy’s narrative only the size of the forgery is bigger—a briefcase with 1 million forged Euros intended as a bribe for tax inspectors is stolen by some Georgian petty thieves and then stolen again by a corrupt cop and stolen again by another group of criminals and then stolen again... The briefcase goes on a journey from Moscow to Kharkov and back to Moscow and everyone who comes in contact with it dreams of what good things they will do with the money before being deceived and having the case stolen in an endless chain of events. The plot is remarkably simple for such an expertly crafted and convoluted story involving so many different characters. The case is anxiously being tracked by the cops, businessmen, tattooed sex workers, Georgian petty crims, Ukrainian mafiosi, Russian heavies. In fact, everyone is searching for the slippery million Euros. Displaying a remarkably astute investment strategy, some plan to use the money to open a petrol station, others dream of a hotel in Spain while others just want to grab the money and run. They are all searching for the briefcase, but no one can hold on to the loot for long before losing it to someone else. The plot is not nearly as important as the individual episodes that explode with astounding character performances by a large and inventive cast.

babloIn The Forged Coupon, Tolstoy posits that it is greed, blind faith and materialism that have corrupted every layer of Russian society. The passage of evil from one person to another goes unchecked, commencing from a father’s ill temper towards his son that prompts the young man to forge a bank note and pass it on to an unwitting store owner. This small deceit continues and grows in scale across vast social layers, from peasants to religious instructors with cheating, lies, perjury, theft, revenge, injustice, hatred and murders that grip the entire nation. It is only when the evil is not resisted but gently overwhelmed with complete goodness that the malevolent chain of events is stopped. In 1898 Tolstoy wrote in his diary: “because non-resistance alone can stop evil absorb it into itself, and neutralize it, by not allowing evil to move on, as it inherently strives to move, like a bouncy ball does, unless you have a force, which can absorb it...” (Tolstoy)

Loot may not support Tolstoy’s messianic quest for redemption, nor exhibit the same degree of cruelty as Bresson or the un-forgiveness of Finnish director, Aku Louhimies, but it does chart new territory. It transforms the evil of materialism into a black comedy where every social layer is riven with deceit. Everyone in pursuit of the briefcase is united by their involvement in various levels of corruption and their desire to get rich. It is one of those rare gangster thrillers that exhibit a light, good-hearted touch amidst the sharp talk and violence. The tale of a stolen briefcase full of money and the chase to get it back is so common as to make it a crime sub-genre. Loot fulfils all the gangster genre requirements but adds a metaphysical level. This is a film about more than a million Euros. It is a film about hope and the fate of Russia that is gripped once again in the clutches of endemic corruption and injustice, set amidst shabby lower-middle class poverty.

babloAs critic Aleksandr Shpagin observed, “when the loot falls from the heavens, it becomes an absurdly heavy load, and, oddly enough, it becomes not just unnecessary, superfluous, but torturously dangerous. Out of this paradoxical situation enormous comic potential can be squeezed, because humor is born of paradox. But paradox also begets contemplation. And out of this truth is born” (Shpagin 2011).

Loot was released at a time when crime films have become rare. There are no doubt good ideological reasons for this. Writer-director Buslov clearly recognized the genre rules in combining traces of numerous other films but delivering a uniquely original vision that he named ‘a corruption comedy’ to really specify his new genre. There have been few quality Russian gangster comedies, no matter how much critics proclaim the deep influence of Tarantino and Ritchie on Russian directors. Blind Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, Balabanov 2005), Mama, Don’t Cry (Mama ne goriui, Maksim Pezhemskii, 1998) and, to some extent, Thieves within the Law (Vory v Zakone, Kara, 1988) operate in this mode where the comedy lies just beneath the brutal realism. The mix of violence and comedy are often presented as an ironic folk logic that ties the modern world to a mythical past which naturalizes the questionable activities and disables critical engagement.

babloStylistically Loot is impressive for its sound design and fluid editing that stitches together the episodic structure, as well as its innovative camera work (watch for the sunlight shot between Yana’s legs—it is quite startling). The film employs terrific narrative surprises in following the briefcase’s odyssey around all sorts of far from glamorous criminal hangouts. In the film’s world it is the cops who live well while the envious ‘crooks’, dreaming of living a normal life with a million Euros, are always scrounging for an opportunity amidst the impoverished Soviet-era detritus. The comedy comes in part from their battler, devil-may-care attitude.

Loot premiered at the 2011 Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr where it won the Best First Film award. The international premiere was in September 2011 at the 8th Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Australia where director, Konstantin Buslov was a guest of the Festival. The film received an unprecedented audience response and provoked boisterous discussion . While Loot may be Buslov's debut feature film it was produced by CTB’s Sergei Selianov and demonstrates signs of a solid filmmaking pedigree, as it does not look or feel like a first feature with its mature script, robust performances and confident aesthetic choices.

babloIn fact, Konstantin Buslov is the older brother of Petr Buslov who sprang to prominence in 2002 with the slacker gangster hit Bumer that came out of nowhere and redefined the cool, folksy gangster genre after the myth-making of Balabanov’s Brother films. Konstantin appeared briefly in Bumer as an actor, and since 2001 has been working with the producer auteur, Sergei Selianov at CTB film production studio as an executive producer. Buslov was the executive produced of Bumer and its 2006 sequel, Heaven on Earth, as well as the comedy folktale with a touch of mafia, }{ott@bych (2006). According to the website “Kinopoisk,” Loot attracted some 340,000 viewers and accrued $2.25million at the box office. The younger Buslov shows a similarly sure sense for commercial success, as his film Vysotsky. Grateful to be Alive (Vysotsky. Spasibo, chto zhivoi), after just two weeks’ became Russia’s top box office film of 2011.

Loot explores the dirty underbelly of contemporary Russia with mafia, thugs, prostitutes, corruption at every level and various government officials trying to trick and steal from one another. And yet it is all good fun. Just like in Tolstoy’s tale there is a wonderful moment of redemption. Loot is a modern allegory and one of the finest Russian gangster crime capers, abounding with witty dialogue and a virtual training manual in corruption techniques for sequestering government money. It is a tale of how a businessman unwilling to pay his taxes attempts to bribe corrupt bureaucrats with forged Euros and how that money goes freewheeling across Russia eventually losing all sense of ownership and authenticity but having made the most unorthodox human connections.

Greg Dolgopolov
University of New South Wales, Australia

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Works Cited

Viktor Shklovskii (1982), “Den’gi” quoted in Ekran 82-83, Moscow: Iskusstvo, p.171.

Lev Tolstoy, Tolstoy Collected Works in 22 Volumes, Russian Virtual Library

Aleksandr Shpagin (2011) “Nadezhda na ‘Bablo’,” Cinematheque, 11 June.

 


Loot, Russia, 2011
96 minutes, color, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director and Scriptwriter: Konstantin Buslov
Cinematographer: Levan Kapanadze
Designer Maksim Fesiun
Cast: Maria Berseneva, Roman Madianov, Giya Gogishvili, Georgi Gurguliya, Mikhail Meskhi, Iakov Kucherevskii, Vladimir Sychev, Kirill Safonov, Sergei Nasibov, Sergei Bolotaev
Production Film Company: СТВ
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Distribution: Nashe Kino

Konstantin Buslov: Loot (Bablo, 2011)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2012

Updated: 11 Jan 12