Issue 36 (2012)
Oleg Pogodin: Home (Dom, 2011)
reviewed by Raisa Sidenova © 2012
Parts of Oleg Pogodin’s Home are like the film’s characters: incompatible but forced to stay together. And just like the characters form a family, different parts of the film do make a whole, which surprisingly holds together and at times delights the viewer. Beautifully shot and superbly cast, Home is a flawed yet compelling film that incorporates elements of gangster story, family epic and even western. This mélange reflects the director’s love for American filmmakers in the likes of Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, and Francis Ford Coppola. A trained film critic with a cinephile’s eye, Pogodin transplants American tales to the black soils of Southern Russia, and the result is both local and epic, as the film, set in a family home, in the end turns to sweeping conclusions about the Russian character.
The story is deceptively simple: four generations of the Shamanov family, headed by a strong-willed Grigorii (Bogdan Stupka) and his sensible wife Nadezhda (Larisa Malevannaia), live in an imposing house in the middle of the Don River steppes. The family, getting ready to celebrate Grigorii’s father’s centennial birthday, is joined by Grigorii’s daughter Tamara (Evgeniia Dmitrieva), coming from Moscow and, unexpectedly, by his eldest son Viktor (Sergei Garmash), who returns home after 25 years of absence. What could be a complex enough exploration of a dysfunctional family gets a twist with Viktor’s backstory: a fugitive mobster, he came home to say farewell to his parents as a gang of criminals is on his tail.
Viktor’s story frames the personal perturbations his siblings are going through. Brothers Andrei and Pasha (Ivan Dobronravov and Vladimir Epifantsev) both want to leave home but their aspirations are diametrically opposite: Pasha wants to join Viktor and become a mobster, while Andrei, less impressed by Viktor’s achievements, wants to join the navy (a desire that betrays his idealistic worldview). The younger sister Natalia (Ekaterina Rednikova)—educated, young and beautiful—is trapped in a stifling house and an unhappy marriage to a once promising but now impotent (figuratively and literally) scientist Igor (Gleb Podgorodintsev). The older sister Tamara comes home with a successful husband, whose Jewishness is emphasized by Tamara’s habit of calling him by his last name—Roitman—as well as his urban fashion of cravat and leather jacket, so out of place in rural surroundings of his wife’s parental home. Tamara and her husband, of course, have a hidden agenda: their teenage son is a drug addict in trouble, and they hope that Viktor can help. Finally, there is Dmitrii (Igor Savochkin) with his unschooled wife Valentina (Aleksandra Blednaia); weak and scrawny, Dmitrii has to put up not only with his father’s oppressive character but also with his wife’s and children’s indifferent and irreverent attitude.
Thus the film branches out into all possible directions, encompassing different human experiences. This is both a merit and a flaw. Anyone who grew up in a big family will immediately recognize overt and hidden confrontations that, in one way or another, happen in any familial relationship, and Pogodin portrays these tensions through masterfully constructed mise-en-scene as well as excellently directed performances. What seems overwrought is not the convoluted storylines of the siblings but the filmmaker’s desire to turn every character into a metaphor and the entire story into the symbol of contemporary Russian society. The family’s history covers almost the entire 20th century: Grigorii’s father fought for the Revolution and against the kulaks, and his great-grandchildren are coming of age in the 21st century. The family members represent several social groups, and as the film’s title suggests, the Shamanov house itself is one of the main characters and metaphorically stands for the country. Built on the foundation of a kolkhoz khata, now the house unmistakably belongs to the new, post-Soviet Russia: renovated and expanded, it has new brick walls and large windows; cozily decorated, it is filled with old and new furniture and adorned with pumpkins and colorful pickle jars. It is a solid and prosperous household, if a bit shabby and scruffy.
A sort of moral dilemma of the family (the country) is revealed with the source of this prosperity: during one of the numerous quarrels Grigorii says that the house was built only thanks to Viktor’s help, i.e. with the money he earned as a gangster (and a professional killer, it is suggested). This emphasis on Viktor’s contribution to the family’s well-being adds to the general thrust of the film to redeem the character. He is the only one who is faithful to the family and able to love, forgive and forget no matter what. The final touch in Viktor’s redemption comes with the revelation that he actually did not commit the very first crime he was charged with and went to prison for. Thus some of the blame is put on the jail experience rather than on the character himself. Here lies one of the most conclusive suggestions of the film: today’s Russia was formed during unlawful times, when traditional rules of morality were not applicable, but love for the family (country) redeemed him from his crimes. This redemption narrative is ambiguous but popular, for example, among supporters of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose prison sentence is seen as redemption for his (and his fellow oligarchs’) morally and legally questionable actions during the infamous 1990s. (Cyril Tuschi’s documentary film Khodorkovsky is partly built on this narrative.)
The film, however, is not unambiguous about Viktor’s redemption, and the ending is especially confusing in this regard. In interviews, Pogodin stated that two endings were considered, and the crew opted for the second one, which was shorter and cheaper to shoot. According to the director, the alternative was to show how the entire family would come together to protect Viktor against the mobsters. The chosen ending develops in a faster pace: Pasha, eager to impress his big brother, defends him, arrogantly killing one of the gangsters and igniting their unstoppable rage: in an act of revenge they open fire and kill almost everybody in the house. The killing spree is filmed, in the tradition of Quentin Tarantino, in slow motion, to the soundtrack of a lyrical song featuring poignant female vocals. Ironically, Viktor survives and has to avenge the death of his family; in the very end, he is somewhat improbably saved by his wheelchair-bound grandfather. But the last plot turn in this rather convoluted finale comes out of the left field: Viktor’s long-forgotten love Sveta appears out of nowhere and shoots him dead: she blames him for the death of the unborn baby she lost many years ago.
The film’s ending can be read in several ways; first, as a genre film inspired by best Hollywood examples, Home aspires for a “closed” narrative. Villains should be punished, and only the innocent have the right to live. In an interview Pogodin voiced his dislike for the open narratives of recent Russian cinema, stating that the only people left alive in his film are innocent children and those who show potential for growth (these are Andrei, Natalia, and Igor). The story of Viktor’s redemption in this context transforms into a story of the impossibility of redemption; but the film nevertheless is more optimistic than, for example, Andrei Smirnov’s Once There Lived a Simple Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba, 2011), which in an eerily similar manner ends with the death of all characters. The second reading comes retrospectively and is suggested by the film’s motif of an elusive she-wolf that punctuates the narrative at the beginning, middle and end. The opening sequence offers some hints: when Pasha and Andrei are hunting in the steppe at night; they shoot a wolf but miss a she-wolf. Subsequently, Andrei predicts that the she-wolf will be back for revenge. In the middle, at the emotional pivot of the film, Viktor and Pasha have a nocturnal fight in the steppe, watched by the she-wolf from afar. In the end, Andrei’s line turns into a rather blunt metaphor with the appearance of Sveta. But this motif highlights the film’s interest in gender and violence: in a man’s world, a woman has to put up with his violence but she can be strong enough to retaliate. As a revenge narrative or as a feminist tale, however, the film is not entirely satisfying due to its rather nihilistic undertones. As Sveta’s final attack is so unexpected (although ridiculously foreshadowed by her first appearance, where she is shown dangerously holding a knife), her act is no more meaningful than, for instance, Antonina’s cruel revenge in the finale of Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007). In this regard, such close-endedness is no better than open-endedness and, after all, Home becomes not a classic genre film, but a post-modern one.
In the post-modern manner, the film is full of cinematic quotes, most visibly from Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven. Narratively, the films share an inexplicable fondness for bygone eras that are cruel yet gentle. But Malick’s influence is most visible in the cinematography of Antoine Vivas Denisov, whose camera moves smoothly, saturating the image in earthy shades of brown, golden, and ochre (with some moments of Malick’s signature “golden hour” lighting of warm hues of a descending sun). This is especially noticeable in the scene when Natalia confides in Viktor, explaining her misery and frustration: shot in extreme close-ups and built on the conventional shot/reverse shot editing technique, the scene works thanks to the natural lighting that emphasizes the warmer tones and reveals the touching affection between brother and sister.
The film’s ensemble cast is truly remarkable. Both Bogdan Stupka and Sergei Garmash deliver performances that fill viewers with sympathy for their quite unlikable characters. Garmash, who received the NIKA award for Best Actor, is especially powerful, demonstrating subtlety worthy of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro in a film that is not particularly subtle. All female cast members shine in their relatively small parts that give depth to some of the more straightforward male characters. In this regard, each of the actors did a tremendous job of overcoming the limitations of the script and made their characters real and relatable.
Produced by Central Partnership and CTB, Home premiered at the Window to Europe festival in Vyborg in August 2011. Although it was the critics’ favorite during the festival and garnered Pogodin a prize for “mastery of cinematic professions,” the film went virtually unnoticed in the nationwide release and ended up on the list of the year’s commercially least successful films. Home’s box-office failure can be seen as a sign of the relative immaturity of the Russian film market, unable to accommodate not easily marketable films as opposed to clear art-house heavyweights such as Andrei Zviagintsev’s Elena (2011) or, on the other hand, popular hits with tremendous marketing support such as Petr Buslov’s Vysotsky (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi 2011). Its commercial fiasco notwithstanding, Pogodin’s film is a masterful piece of storytelling with a strong impact that stays with the viewer despite some clumsy metaphors and a lengthy finale.
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Home, Russia, 2011
Color, 127 minutes
Director and scriptwriter: Oleg Pogodin
Director of Photography: Antoine Vivas Denisov
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Cast: Sergei Garmash, Bogdan Stupka, Vladimir Epifantsev, Ekaterina Rednikova, Larisa Malevannaia, Igor Savochkin, Ivan Dobronravov, Petr Zaichenko, Evgeniia Dmitrieva
Production: Central Partnership and CTB
Oleg Pogodin: Home (Dom, 2011)
reviewed by Raisa Sidenova © 2012