Issue 35 (2012)

Sergei Govorukhin: Land of Men (Zemlia liudei, 2011)

reviewed by David Gillespie © 2012

land of menSergei Govorukhin, the director, writer and producer of Land of Men, and the son of the director Stanislav Govorukhin, died on 27 October 2011, having been admitted to hospital ten days earlier following a brain haemorrhage. He was fifty years old, and had made his name in the 1990s as a war reporter in Chechnya, where he lost a leg. His film Land of Menhad premiered just a month before. Sergei Govorukhin was also a writer, and his last film is based on his own novella Mutnyi materik, which translates as ‘Murky Mainland’, but is the name of a village in the Komi peninsular in the far north of Russia.

land of menIt is in the wintry north where the films begins, as the hero, the budding writer Aleksei Komarov, agrees with his work boss to take his annual leave. He returns to Moscow, where he has an apartment, having struck up a relationship with the languorous Tamara on the train journey. Just as Aleksei is trying to find a publisher for his work, so Tamara is looking for roles in the theatre. Through the agencies of Evgeniia, who graduated from the film school course he had abandoned, Aleksei’s script is accepted by a film-maker and he is given a handsome advance payment. After her first role as a teapot in a TV commercial, Tamara is then accepted for a part on a TV show hosted by Evgeniia. Aleksei refuses to compromise on his screenplay with the director Orekhov and returns the advance. He and Tamara separate, and she reveals her love and sadness on Evgeniia’s show. As Aleksei walks home at night he is attacked and stabbed by a gang of thugs.

land of menAs the above plot synopsis suggests, this is a film based on contrasts, with accompanying symbolism, infused with a resigned melancholy on the price to be paid for success. Just as Aleksei ponders the compromises suggested to him for final acceptance of his screenplay, so the film returns to the North where his former work colleagues accept the reality of shamanism amid the harshness of the northern winter. The simplicity of this life is starkly set off by the superficialities of the lifestyles of the Moscow rich. They may have their expensive cars and horses and pedigree dogs (one called ‘Porsche’), but no-one in this life is happy. Evgeniia may have everything she wants in material terms, but she too has paid a price: she reveals to Aleksei that she has had to abandon her own child with her mother, for fear that her husband (not the child’s father) find out. He will certainly divorce her, she reasons, if he does. Rather, the only contentment and genuine laughter in the film is with the characters who live outside the city, either in the cold north or by the sea. In case the audience hasn’t got it yet, the contrast of the vitality and beauty of the natural world with the concrete-and-glass sterility of Moscow life is reaffirmed in another scene. Aleksei and Tamara travel to the sea to visit friends who have also turned their backs on conformity and the city, the lashing waves offering both an impressive backdrop and providing their inner inspiration.

Characters are also drawn as contrasts. Aleksei is obviously very different from the calculating Orekhov, just as the ethereal Tamara (another in a long line of insulted, injured and innocent Russian females) is clearly distinguished from the hard-bitten but damaged Evgeniia.

land of menIn thematic terms this is an old-fashioned and rather stereotypical film about the tension between artistic integrity and material temptation, honesty and betrayal. Hollywood went soul-searching in the 1980s and 1990s in films such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), James Bridges’s Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and James Foley’s version of the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Govorukhin’s post-Soviet take on the soul-versus-sellout dilemma can also be given a national heritage. Land of Men bears some stark similarities with a well-known Brezhnev-era literary work, ‘The Long Farewell’(Dolgoe proshchanie, 1971), a novella by Iurii Trifonov about a playwright who refuses to sacrifice the honesty of his writing for acceptance and success. Trifonov also contrasts the venality of much of Moscow city life with the calm and majesty of nature (for Trifonov it is Siberia). But whereas Trifonov’s hero eventually achieves success (after all, proponents of ‘advanced socialism’ claimed that everyone could attain their proper station in life), in post-Soviet Russia the alternatives are disillusionment and death. However, for this reviewer the abiding motif of the film lies elsewhere: everyone drinks, whether in the north or in Moscow, at all times of the day. Govorukhin’s untimely death may provide a tragic coda to the film, but life can only be endured if there is a bottle nearby.

David Gillespie
University of Bath

Comment on this article on Facebook

Land of Men, Russia, 2010
Color, 105 mins.
Director: Sergei Govorukhin
Scriptwriters: Sergei Govorukhin, Sergei Karandashov, Vadim Bochanov
Cinematography: Grigorii Iablochnikov
Composer: Oleg Fedoseev
Cast: Aleksandr Rattnikov, Anna Taratorkina, Sergei Shnyrev, Tat’iana Kolganova, Evgenii Ermakov, Nikolai Denisov, Konstantin Balakirev, Stanislav Strelkov, Tat’iana Kliukina, Vasilii Shemiakinskii.
Producer: Sergei Govorukhin
Production Company: OOO Posleslovie, with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture

Sergei Govorukhin: Land of Men (Zemlia liudei, 2011)

reviewed by David Gillespie © 2012

Updated: