Issue 40 (2013)
Aleksei Mizgirev: The Convoy (Konvoi, 2012)
reviewed by Laura Todd © 2013
According to the Army commander in Aleksei Mizgirev’s third feature-length film, Convoy, everyone is “sick of disorderly conduct.” Yet disorderly conduct is at the heart of the plotline of Convoy, defining its characters, the situations in which they find themselves and their conduct. In the film, Mizgirev explores human behavior in extreme situations, as well as the good and the bad hidden (or not so hidden) inside people.
Convoy tells the story of the psychologically troubled Army Captain Ignat as he struggles to cope with his increasing dislocation from reality. Following an altercation with some drunken men, Ignat finds himself in front of his commander, facing criminal charges. In order to keep Ignat out of trouble, the commander sends him to search for and return two deserters, who are hiding somewhere in Moscow with 19,000 rubles (US$ 700) of stolen government money. While the first deserter commits suicide after murdering a police officer, Ignat—together with the sergeant attached to help him—find the second deserter hiding in his mother’s house. The process of returning the clownish deserter, Artem Tugaev, to the provincial base where they have come from, is hindered by the pull and negativity of Moscow. Ignat, the sergeant and Artem inadvertently become ensnared in the underside of Moscow life, witnessing the brutality of both the police and of the criminal underworld. Yet Ignat is plagued by migraines, which lead to hallucinations and blackouts, while also hinting at deeper psychological issues, which he is unwilling to face. Ignat’s encounter with Artem brings about a fundamental change in his negative outlook on life and his inability to confront his physical and psychological pain. By the end of the film, Ignat has undergone a significant change in attitude, although it is too late for him to be able to help Artem.
Mizgirev’s previous films Hard-Hearted (Kremen’, 2007) and Buben, Baraban (2009) attracted attention at home and abroad for their unflinching portrayals of human behavior. Mizgirev attempts to continue this pattern with Convoy. The screenplay for Convoy, written by Mizgirev himself, caught the attention of Pavel Lungin, who joined the crew as the producer and included the support of his studio in the making of the film. However, Lungin acknowledges the limited appeal of the film, stating that it is not intended as a cinematic hit, but rather as an auteur piece which he felt obliged to support for its artistic vision rather than its ability to bring in profits (Bondarev 2012). The film itself was not widely released in Russia, but it won two prizes at Kinotavr 2012, with Best Actor for Azamat Nigmanov, who plays the deserter Artem, and Best Music for Aleksandr Manotskov’s chillingly beautiful score. Previously, the film had been shown in the Berlinale’s Panorama section.
However, it is the acting of Nigmanov and Oleg Vasil’kov (Ignat), which without a doubt carries the film. A key focus of the film is on Ignat’s soulless eyes and immoveable countenance, which contributes to a permanent sense of discomfort for the viewer. Vasil’kov manages at once to make Ignat seem both irreverent and obsessive. He claims to feel no pain, but is plagued by migraines and concealed emotional anguish. He fixates on meaningless objects instead of the issues which are troubling him. Nigmanov’s Artem, on the other hand, is full of life, despite his all-consuming fear of being returned to the army. Artem’s attempts at humor throughout the film, including his pretending to be a raven, compound the dystopia which envelops the two men during their twenty-four hours in Moscow. His humor is intended to diffuse the awkward tension pervading the film and defuse the dangerous situations in which they get caught up, but in combination with Ignat’s stony-faced lack of responsiveness, the jokes not only fall flat, but increase the sense of the unreal.
The film itself is built on repetition, both of symbols and dialogue. Convoy’s opening shot of a rock placed on white bathroom tiles encompasses the cyclical nature of the film. The rock that represents Ignat’s pain is given to him so he can thrust it from him: the throwing away of this rock is intended to metaphorically relieve Ignat of his mental burden, something which he is unable to do. At the end of the film, the shot of the rock reappears, linking the story and illustrating how the narrative is Ignat’s memory of what took place in Moscow. This linkage explains the film’s fragmented and repetitive nature. Ignat constantly repeats phrases, such as “you don’t get it”, at odd times, serving as verbal manifestations of his psychological breakdown. Ignat is right; by shutting himself off to the outside, no-one understands his behavior or suffering—except Artem, who coaxes a confession from him. The plot also revolves around several symbolic, but seemingly banal, repeated elements, such as vodka bottles, Artem’s red clown nose and the lost money. The fixation on these seemingly meaningless elements reflects Ignat’s increasing obsession with these objects, illustrating how his troubled mind has recorded events of the film based on the appearance of such objects at random moments. The objects frame major parts of the narrative and serve as mental anchors in the increasingly bizarre plotline.
The camera angles also reflect on the narrow fixations of Ignat’s mind and memory. Although the film is largely set in Moscow, there are no sweeping views, no recognizable cityscapes that would allow the viewer to locate the action. Rather, Mizgirev shows Moscow through a limited scope of subways, corridors, an unidentified train station to which they keep returning, and reflections of the city (and the characters) in mirrors and windows. The filming is claustrophobic and echoes Ignat’s cold indifference to the world around him, as the camera continually returns to fixate his blank eyes. Moscow once again becomes the metropolitan fiend, in contrast to the anonymity of the provincial town from which they have come. The city is unrelentingly negative, inhabited by corrupt and cruel individuals—from the police to the Caucasian criminal with whom their lives become entangled. In many ways, the city characters are stock types, as also seen in other explorations of urban life in recent Russian cinema. While Ignat is particularly hard, his severity pales in comparison to the cruelty of those who inhabit Moscow.
Mizgirev has stated openly in interviews that he did not want Convoy to be read as an exploration of police and army brutality, in spite of the film’s focus on these two institutions (Maliukova 2012). Mizgirev highlights how a film’s choice of characters leads the way that an audience will read a film, but also how the plot interacts with the social context in which it is made (Dondurei 2012). The army and police are prominent institutions in Russian life, and therefore cut recognizable figures. The choice is clearly intentional, and the two institutions both compare and contrast with each other; in this comparison, the police are more brutal and threatening than the army: they are involved in beatings, bribery and inferred sexual assaults of women. The army, on the other hand, appear to be lethargic, acting indifferently to the actions of their soldiers and officers. In interviews, Mizgirev claims he did not want to the film to be a record of the army’s shameful dedovshchina (the hazing of new recruits), yet there is a constant suggestion of the brutality and misery of army life for recruits such as Artem (Maliukova 2012). The habit for reprisals seems to be entrenched in the system and scares the deserters more than any other fate, including death.
The film explores the inherent contrasts in people’s personalities, the good and the bad. The capacity for evil remains within everyone, but is influenced by the environment. Mizgirev’s Convoy does not offer a happy ending, but it presents the audience with an in-depth and occasionally painful exploration of human nature. Is Ignat an inherently good person, a victim of the harshness that surrounds him? Or does his conscience occasionally creep up on him, getting the best of him? These are the central questions of the film, which remain open to interpretation. While Ignat has clearly undergone a moral change, there is little sense of relief for the audience.
University of Nottingham
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“Bondarev,” “Pavel Lungin o ‘Dirizhere’, ‘Pikovoi dame’, ‘Konvoe’, gosden’gakh i goszakaze”, KinoBizon.ru, 19 March 2012.
Maliukova, Larisa, “Aleksei Mizgirev: Vse nepravda pro depressiiu”, Novaia gazeta, 20 Feb. 2012.
Dondurei, Tamara, “Rezhisser Aleksei Mizgirev: ‘Moskva – eto stalkerovskaia zona gde vozmozhno vse’”, Interview Russia, 29 Feb. 2012.
Convoy, Russia, 2012
81 minutes, color
Director: Aleksei Mizgirev
Script: Aleksei Mizgirev
Producer: Pavel Lungin
Cast: Oleg Vasil’kov, Azamat Nigmanov, Dmitrii Kulichkov, Ruslana Doronina, Ivan Akhadi, Daniela Stoianovich, Evgenii Antropov, Taras Koliadov, Aleksei Gnilitskii, Nikolai Kochura, Nikolai Mal’tsev.
Director of Photography: Ianis Eglitis
Art Director: Kirill Shuvalov
Costume Designer: Tat’iana Kniazheva
Music: Aleksandr Manotskov
Editor: Natal’ia Kucherenko
Aleksei Mizgirev: The Convoy (Konvoi, 2012)
reviewed by Laura Todd © 2013