Issue 42 (2013)
Iurii Bykov: The Major (Maior, 2013)
reviewed by David McVey © 2013
Even if ascendant Russian auteur Iurii Bykov was not present at the Iskusstvo kino roundtable of the 2011 Kinotavr Film Festival, then he very well may have read the transcript and taken it to heart. Bykov’s second film, The Major, which he directed, wrote, edited, scored, and starred in, appears tailor-made to address the concerns enumerated by the clutch of impassioned directors, screenwriters, critics, and producers at the session. Roundtable participants lamented that the rising generation of Russian filmmakers—or “The New Quiet Ones” (Novye tikhie), a moniker coined by Sergei Shnurov—has not connected with Russian moviegoers on a number of fronts. Although directors of this inchoate Russian “New Wave” (e.g., Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksei Popogrebskii, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Vasilii Sigarev, as well as Bykov) exhibit varying cinematic styles and worldviews, the roundtable reproved their films for being characterized by a common “depressing nature.” Roundtable moderator Daniil Dondurei contended that the films of the new guard exhibit a distrust of government institutions, particularly of the police. Khlebnikov, associated with the “New Wave,” argued that directors have not been aggressive enough in their cinematic confrontations with authority and, therefore, their films have not packed the necessary social wallop. Film critic Zara Abdullaeva dismissed the charge of depressiveness, instead criticizing the films for their artistic shortcomings, and complimenting Romanian New Wave directors for their success in crafting the very sort of compelling, self-reflexive, socially-oriented films she asserted the Russians have failed to generate.
The roundtable was perhaps overly melodramatic in its negative appraisal of contemporary Russian cinema, as there have been some very successful releases since the resuscitation of the Russian film industry in the mid-2000s. In fact, successive Russian films continue to shatter box-office records among domestic audiences, and some very expensive blockbusters are slated for imminent release, a trend that speaks to, at least, a functioning industry. Bykov’s film is not such a blockbuster, but a low-budget generic crime thriller, which still manages to shock and rivet as it tackles head-on the thorny issue of the relationship between Russian civilians and the police—the most readily visible and, discursively, most immediately corrupt and oppressive institution of the Russian state. Bykov has commented that The Major was inspired in part by the 2009 supermarket shooting rampage of Major Evsiukov in suburban Moscow (Al’perina). Although The Major screened at the Critics’ Week in Cannes without gaining an award and left Kinotavr 2013 empty-handed, it has polarized critics and engaged with the topical concerns of the Russian film community, as expressed at the roundtable—points that render it worthy of viewing and discussing.)
On a frigid winter morning, a telephone call awakens police Major Sobolev, played by Denis Shvedov, who also acted in Bykov’s first film To Live (Zhit’ 2010). Sobolev learns that his wife has gone into labor at a maternity ward in nearby Riazan’. With this news, the major speeds down a treacherous black-ice-covered road to the hospital. In his frenzy, he mows down a seven-year-old boy in front of the child’s horrified mother, Irina Mikhailovna (Irina Nizina). Panicked, Sobolev locks the mother in his SUV and telephones his police comrades, officers Korshunov (Bykov) and Merkulov (Il’ia Isaev), summoning them to manipulate the accident scene in order to exonerate Sobolev and implicate the mother. The police officers tamper with evidence, falsify reports, and entreat Irina Mikhailovna to drink a tumbler of cognac, ostensibly to calm her down, but actually to render her intoxicated for a blood test. After further consulting with one Pankratov (Denis Nevzorov), whose questionable livelihood the film never clarifies (is he a retired police chief or a mafia kingpin?), Korshunov forces Irina Mikhailovna to sign a false witness statement after brutally beating her and her husband. Henceforth, events increasingly spin out of control as both police officers and civilians wind up dead in the wake of Sobolev and Korshunov’s efforts to forestall an internal investigation. When Sobolev, growing weary of the escalating violence, volunteers to confess and face legal consequences, Korshunov categorically forbids him, insisting on the need to protect Sobolev’s freedom and the police force’s reputation. In fact, no officer at the station can come clean about the child’s death and subsequent cover-up, as it is revealed that all of them have committed egregious breaches of protocol in the past that could land them in jail and scandalize the force. In desperation, Sobolev flees the police station and collects Irina Mikhailovna in order to protect her from Korshunov. They hide at a dacha while Korshunov plots his next move. In the end, Korshunov shouts in maniacal despondency over his mobile phone that if Sobolev does not kill Irina Mikhailovna, he will shoot Sobolev’s wife and newborn baby at the maternity ward. With no seemingly viable alternative, Sobolev shoots the grieving Irina Mikhailovna. Korshunov dispenses with Merkulov, the other police officer directly involved in doctoring the crime scene, in order to leave no witnesses of the past twenty-four hours’ atrocities. At the film’s end, a trail of bodies in his wake, Sobolev hitchhikes to the maternity hospital on a truck he sped past before running over the boy in the beginning of the film.
In regard to cinematic content and form, The Major seems to tick all the boxes in addressing the primary concerns of the 2011 roundtable about “The New Quiet Ones.” Indeed, Bykov’s film veritably bellows out in its portrayal of the deplorable actions of individual policemen, but does not condemn the institution of the police per se. At a press conference following the film’s screening at Kinotavr 2013, Bykov maintained that he was not trying to depict the police as “monsters,” but rather to balance the discourse of corruption with an honest look into the daily lives of police officers, paying them due respect for their taxing work (Bykov). To do so, Bykov provides an intimate glimpse into the workday of police officers at the station. In this scene, the film stages routine interactions between the police and the social reprobates with whom they must contend. Petty criminals, brawlers, and an army of surly prostitutes test the officers’ patience with their taunting and threats. In one of the film’s more arresting moments, a drunkard’s elderly mother curses a police officer for having compelled her to travel to the station, even though the police have saved her life by apprehending her disorderly son. She unleashes a litany of hexes at the officer, culminating in the chilling pronouncement, “May your wife give birth to dead babies!” In a later episode, when Irina Mikhailovna’s husband (Dmitrii Kulichkin) comes to shoot up the station in retaliation, one Officer Burlakov roars back at him, “I’ve dodged bullets for twenty years so that you can go to the toilet and eat dinner in peace!” Thus, instead of singularly wallowing in anecdotes of police corruption, The Major presents the simultaneous reality that police officers confront exceedingly unpleasant, perilous situations on a daily basis in order to facilitate the functioning of a society that is otherwise ignorant of their sacrifices.
The sin The Major categorically condemns is not proverbial workaday abuses of police authority. Rather, it cautions against the misapplication of this authority. The film’s inciting incident is Sobolev’s reckless off-duty driving and willful disregard for basic traffic laws, something the mise en scène establishes in a shot of the accident scene where Sobolev’s head is flanked by blue traffic signs indicating a bus stop and pedestrian crossing. Sobolev first flouts the state’s laws and then utilizes state-sanctioned force against innocent bystanders to avoid answering for his mistake. The Major, thus, ruminates upon the question of what happens when, what Max Weber called the “administrative staff” (16) of the state misappropriates its “monopoly of the legitimate use of force” (13) for personal ends, instead of the utilitarian assurance of society’s general welfare. The film’s answer is that the result is a crisis of legitimacy of the state. At the 2013 Kinotavr press conference, Bykov sanctimoniously mused, “If I am obligated to my fellow man, who is a total stranger, then institutions of power work. If I am only obligated to my family, children, and friends, and to no one else (well, this is my position, anyway), then institutions of power cease to function” (Bykov). The press conference moderator asked Bykov whether the film was about Russia, and the director replied, “I’m not saying that the film is directly about Russia, but it is about how everyone has begun to believe that we can live this way. But we can’t live like this. It’s not right” (Bykov). Bykov’s conference cri de coeur mirrors a quotation by Sobolev’s character at the film’s climax, just before he and Korshunov execute their final victims: “How are we supposed to live now?” Given this undergirding philosophy, The Major directly engages with the roundtable’s concern about the ineffective cinematic portrayal of various social crises in Russia. Moreover, it does so not with a whisper, but with a shout, contradicting the pejorative label “The New Quiet Ones.”
The Major also tackles Abdullaeva’s assertion that today’s Russian filmmakers are inept in their cinematic expression. True, The Major is a genre film, but it nevertheless features formally engaging, if not entirely innovative filmmaking. The Spartan score, generated mostly by the morose plucking of a solitary electric guitar, promulgates an appropriately nerve-racking tenor. Bykov divides The Major into three acts (the accident scene, the police station, and the dacha where Sobolev takes Irina Mikhailovna for protection), and each act is punctuated by episodes that begin with extreme long shots of winter landscapes. The cinematography accentuates the content’s consideration of the tense power nexus among the state, its individual administrators, and the public. As episodes progress, shot distances decrease, allowing viewers an increasingly intimate look into characters’ internal thought processes. Bykov lets close-ups, which often follow a downward tilt, tell the story by demonstrating the aftermath of actions, as well as, in a gesture to Tarkovsky, acknowledge the passage of time. A crystal swinging frantically from the rear-view mirror paces the tension as Sobolev speeds down the highway. A brief cutaway to the boy’s damaged sled symbolizes his death, and Sobolev’s cavalier tossing the sled away connotes his disregard for the tragedy. A high-angle shot of expectorated sunflower-seed shells strewn across the snow indicates the culmination of the police officers’ plotting at the accident scene. A close-up of water glugging from a glass in Irina Mikhailovna’s hand keeps time as she waits at the police station, as well as reflecting the running out of her hopes. A high-angle close-up of Korshunov’s hands as he matter-of-factly arranges a legal file and punches holes in paper betrays the sinisterness of having Irina Mikhailovna sign the false police report. A downward pan to a close-up of Korshunov’s knuckles relays to Sobolev that the former has severely beaten Irina Mikhailovna’s husband. The handheld—but not too shaky—photography augments the pressurized atmosphere, and recurring forward tracking shots through windshields lend the film a feeling of unabated propulsion. Thus, the orchestration of increasingly tighter, closer shots escalates the anxiety in each scene, and Bykov’s use of cause-and-effect close-ups exemplifies an economical mode of storytelling through images—not words—a hallmark of deft filmmaking.
Bykov’s The Major demonstrates that “The New Quiet Ones” of Russian cinema are not necessarily timorous in their filmmaking. His film explores the fraught relationship between the Russian populace and the representatives of the state who are charged with protecting society. The roundtable at Kinotavr 2011 can, perhaps, rest assured that there are competent directors addressing topical social crises, and doing so with commensurate flair. But one concern The Major has not addressed is the failure of many Russian movies to connect with the public. The Major was released in August 2013, and to date has only grossed approximately $121,000 domestically on a budget of two million dollars; fewer than 18,000 viewers have seen the film in theaters (Kinopoisk). Producers are undoubtedly hoping that, for the sake of profit and the involved filmmakers’ careers, the predictions of Variety film critic Leslie Felperin come true: “Already sold to several offshore territories and with a rumored stateside deal in the pipeline, [The Major] should substantially build Bykov’s reputation on the international circuit.” In any case, Bykov has provided a taut, bleak thriller that should position him among the most promising of “The New Quiet Ones.”
Ohio State University
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Al’perina, Susanna. “Ni kapli krovi.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 17 May 2013.
Bykov, Iurii. “Press-konferentsii konkursnykh fil’mov ‘Dialogi’ (rezh. Ira Volkova) i ‘Maior’ (rezh. Iurii Bykov).” Kinotavr.ru 7 June 2013.
Felperin, Leslie. “Cannes Film Review: The Major.” Variety.ru, 31 May 2013.
“Novye tikhie: Rezhisserskaia smena—smena kartin mira.” Iskusstvo kino 8 (2011): 5-20.
Weber, Max. “Politics as Vocation.” Violence: A Reader, New York: New York UP, 2002, pp. 13-18.
The Major (Maior), Russia 2013
Color, 99 minutes
Director: Iurii Bykov
Screenplay: Iurii Bykov
Cinematography: Kirill Klepalov
Music: Iurii Bykov
Cast: Denis Shvedov, Irina Nizina, Iurii Bykov, Il’ia Isaev, Denis Nevzorov, Dmitrii Kulichkin
Producers: Aleksei Uchitel’, Kira Saksaganskaia, Aleksei Alekseev, Anastasiia Alekseeva
Production: Studio 1.2
Iurii Bykov: The Major (Maior, 2013)
reviewed by David McVey © 2013