Issue 61 (2018)

Alena Zvantsova: The Norseman (Norveg, 2015)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2018

Between the Feminist and the Harem: Patriotism, Empire, and Masculinity

The Norseman, like The Italian, or, more recently, The Viking (both directed by Andrei Kravchuk in 2005 and 2016 respectively), becomes a loaded and provocative designation when applied to a nominal Russian, who has not gone through the mandatory soul-searching needed to fully appreciate his place in his native land that has most recently been rebranded as a “unique world civilization,” in which Russians “play the key cementing role” (Putin in Linde) and which, in the long tradition of Russian West/East debates, has been seen as the middle ground between the economically thriving but morally regimented and/or degenerate West and the technologically and socially backward but spiritually robust East.

norvegIn Alena Zvantsova’s comedic iteration, the task of discovering one’s distinct roots and balancing out the two civilizational poles falls to a latte-sipping, croissant-eating liberal intelligent Evgenii—Zhenia—Kirillov (Evgenii Mironov), a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Bauman School of Engineering and a divorcee in his early forties. Zhenia wastes his talents in Russia’s inhospitable economy languishing as a travel agent while actively making plans to emigrate to Norway. The arrangements to meet his Norse fiancée Brunhilde (Severia Janušauskaite), a committed feminist and defender of human rights, proceed as planned until Zhenia’s dubious cousin suddenly flees Russia, leaving him in charge of a shady cleaning agency operated via a cheap cell phone with a ringtone in a garish “oriental” tune. The dramatic appearance in Zhenia’s life of a motley group of five undocumented Kyrgyz women that constitute the agency’s workforce both confounds Zhenia’s middle-class picture of the world and presents an affront to the Western values espoused by Brunhilde, thus jeopardizing Zhenia’s plans of moving to more civilized shores. At the same time, Zhenia’s increasing involvement in the lives of his disenfranchised and exploited charges provides him with a previously missing sense of purpose which helps him to find grounding in the society for which his heart very obviously “bleeds.” (Mis)guiding Zhenia in his search for а true identity is Major Loktev (Dmitrii Mar'ianov), a policeman with the heart of a poet and an inspired TV-issue patriot. Zhenia’s compassionate ex-wife Ania (Kseniia Rappoport), his partner in the travel agency business, provides a much-needed reality-check for Zhenia, caught between the demands of the western feminist and the Central Asian harem.

norvegThe Norseman plays off several film genres and cultural mythologies including the romantic comedy, buddy film, social drama, as well as recent cinema about Central Asian labor migrants and Soviet mythology of Motherland and patriotism. Zvantsova herself describes her film as a “multi-multi-cultural story” and a “tragi-comedy” in which a love triangle acts as a pretext for an in-depth investigation of “all the social and multi-cultural issues” avoiding undue didacticism and pathos (uralkinofest). The film does touch upon a range of social problems and emotions that run the gamut from quotidian to serious and from humorous to tragic. However, Zvantsova’s self-proclaimed “multi-multi-culturalism” may be rather overestimated, in as much as her narrative privileges a Russian male duo as they alone debate and sort out Russia’s many problems. Some of the film’s catchy phrases, which are positioned to become aphorisms—such as “You are a Russian man, you must behave with dignity” or “You are a Russian man in a Russian country”—in fact undermine the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of Russian culture, rossiiskaia as opposed to russkaia.

In a narrative that touches upon a range of socio-political views from Western liberalism to Russian state-sponsored patriotism and ultra-nationalist attitudes, labor migrants from Central Asia play an important new role that reflects their growing visibility and significance in Russian society. Birgit Beumers argues that labor migrants, who are seen as ethnic and cultural others yet still are a part of the common Soviet identity, have become the “new hero of our time” in recent Russian cinema, performing the role of the victim traditionally reserved for the Russian character (2014: 161). This new scenario presents aggression against the marginalized non-Russian population as mainly structural, that is, ascribed to corrupt state institutions, social injustices, or capitalism. The role of the ordinary Russian character consists in assuaging these injustices, be it through assimilating the cultural other into an accepting local community, standing up to the corrupt system, or both, as is the case in The Norseman.

Zhenia’s sudden exposure to the plight of his Central Asian “sisters” both highlights his dissatisfaction with his own marginalized status as a highly cultured professional in an oil-fueled economy, and awakens his intelligentsia sense of duty to protect those who are more powerless and oppressed. Starting with Zhenia’s petty Mafioso cousin and exploitative employers in strip bars and public toilets, Zhenia traces the corruption in the migrant labor industry from the policemen who cover illegal labor trafficking all the way up to the “former” Security Services officials who run profitable sexploitation businesses behind the more civilized facade of European-style enterprises. Through all of this, Zhenia becomes not only the major agent of resistance, but also the film’s central victim. Even though the Kyrgyz women technically play the role of the victimized other, Zhenia ultimately emerges as the film’s only true martyr when the pesky skinheads who have been accusing him of acting as a patron to the non-Russians casually stab him in the stomach at the film’s dramatic finale.

Some critics compare The Norseman to Larisa Sadilova’s social drama She (Ona, 2012) that similarly places a Central Asian (Tajik) woman migrant at the center of its narrative. Both women filmmakers claim to have been motivated by real-life exposure to the hard realities of migrants’ lives; and both identify women migrants as the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, not only in their host society, but also back home. However, even after accounting for genre differences, Zvantsova’s integration of women migrants in her film falls short of Sadilova’s commitment to the problem of migrant others and her focus on the female protagonist announced in the film’s title. In The Norseman, Kyrgyz women play the role of a passive catalyst and an exotic source of humor for what is essentially a Russian-centered buddy film.

norvegThe humor in the film relies heavily on the incongruity between a Europeanized Russian intelligent and his “harem” of Central Asian manual workers; and the metaphor of the harem in the film is both patronizing and orientalizing. Even though some of them are exploited for sex, the Kyrgyz women appear childlike and a-sexual to the point that even a pregnancy does not show until the mother goes into labor. Each of the women has a “Russian” name (probably a gesture to make them more “familiar” to the audience), even though both Zhenia and Loktev use their Kyrgyz names to refer to them: the former out of respect for their individual identity, the latter to underscore their alleged backwardness and alien uniformity in a derogatory “collective” designation (“zyrgul'ki”). In the end, when Zhenia helps his Kyrgyz charges integrate into Russian society, their “oriental” identities determine their new paths: Aychurek (played by the Chinese actress, Yang Ge) becomes a “Japanese girl” waiting tables in a Japanese restaurant (and she “is really good at it”) while Zargul' (Ol'ga Mukukenova) gets a job as an extra in a film about the Mongol-Tatar Yoke. Notably, Aychurek, who prior to her more respectable employment was sexually exploited in a brothel, appears as cheerful and creative as ever; and the viewer cannot see Zargul' in her film because she wears a full-body paranja. The only woman who ascends to a more “European” status is the model-like Gulchekhrai who actually does not look Asian and is played by a professional Armenian-Azeri actress, Sabina Akhmedova. Gulchekhrai, as it turns out, has a university degree in three European languages. As a fairy-tale would have it, she starts as a janitor in a business center and within a week becomes a manager of business negotiations with its German partners.   

Zvantsova conceived of The Norseman as an “homage” to Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni, 1969) in that the Soviet comedy classic “would help set the right tone” for her film (Aref'ev 2014). However, the deliberate associations with the harem in White Sun of the Desert, a war film centered on male pursuits, further trivialize the problem of The Norseman’s Central Asian woman migrants. As Elena Prokhorova argues, “women in White Sun of the Desert are part of the landscape, an excuse for violence and eventual male bonding” (Prokhorova 2010: 60).  

The Norseman’s central male duo of the liberal intelligent Zhenia Kirillov and the conservative police officer Loktev, ideological opponents turned allies in the struggle for a better Russia, loosely replicates the dynamic between the Red Army soldier Comrade Sukhov and the former imperial customs officer Vereshchagin in White Sun. Just like the latter film treats the non-Soviet Vereshchagin “with a notable degree of reverence and imperial nostalgia,” thereby “privileging the imperial officer, and, through him, the mythology of loyalty and patriotism,” the former invests Loktev with the deeper wisdom of ethnic Russian self-respect and dedication to the Motherland that the cosmopolitan Zhenia too readily exchanges for the easier path of emigration. While Zvantsova rather skillfully throws these incongruous opposites together for comic and critical effect, her frequently harsh satire of Western commitment to human rights—as opposed to a rather light-hearted treatment of Russian chauvinism that is worthy not of censure but a chuckle or two—may not always be fairly balanced. 

Even though Zhenia, as the warrior for progressive European values, attempts to stand his ground in regards to ethnic/racial and social equality, as well as freedom of religious and intellectual expression, Loktev emerges as the father/mentor figure in their relationship. As a representative of the firmly grounded “people” he acculturates this rootless liberal into more authentic Russian ways in a reversal of what Aleksandr Etkind has described as “internal colonization.” Loktev keeps close track of the somewhat infantile and socially naive Zhenia’s whereabouts through the special cell phone plan for families with small children, “Smeshariki,” in a humorous parallel to White Sun’s renegade Central Asian warrior Said who effortlessly finds Sukhov in the expansive desert to render desperately needed help. Loktev’s methods of asserting his beliefs may be blunt but they are also effective: just like a parent would discipline a child with a smack on the bottom, Loktev “educationally” hits Zhenia in the eye for expressing disrespect for Russian Orthodoxy. As a father of three children with a fourth on the way, Loktev performs the role of paterfamilias to the childless and childlike Zhenia, patronizingly bringing his whole family to Zhenia’s apartment to explain ”what a man lives for.” At the end of the film, Zhenia is shown to have learned Loktev’s lessons: he is now committed to living in Russia and, as an expectant father, is about to grow new roots in his native soil.

norvegThe Norseman therefore positions Loktev as an endearingly conservative patriarch who can “liberalize” his beliefs (to a point, of course) because he is a poet at heart and his hard-boiled façade is just a protective shell for his deeper sensibilities. The film clearly differentiates between Loktev’s brand of “chauvinism light,” a subject for comedy, and the more damaging top officials’ exploitation of the country’s human and economic resources that transports the action of the film into the realm of tragedy. In this larger setup, Loktev himself plays the role of a “son” to dangerously powerful “fathers.” As Loktev explains to Zhenia, he should not mess with the former Security Services group, because “they are serious, grown up [vzroslye] guys, not some bullies in flip-flops.”

While several real-life attempts to overthrow the authority of such corrupt fathers have failed (most notably, in the 2011-2012 Bolotnaia Square protests), the film models a successful opposition to oppressive power structures through the united-front rebellion by the intelligentsia and the “people” when Zhenia and Loktev fearlessly storm the alleged heart of the corrupt operations, the brothel where Aychurek is kept in sexual bondage. In light of Zhenia’s comparison of the current migrant exploitation practices to serfdom, Zhenia and Loktev’s raid of the brothel evokes the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace. A finely trained physicist, Zhenia now applies rudimentary laws of physics to break down the door to the building as the two men stage a “bloodless”—and successful—rescue mission. This parallel is particularly poignant in light of the official fears of the popular “color” revolutions that have been sweeping across post-Soviet space and of the official lack of interest in celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the 1917 overthrow of monarchy in Russia. Perhaps as a counterbalance to Zhenia and Loktev’s utopian triumph in their mini-revolution, “bullies in flip-flops” eventually draw blood from Zhenia. These street thugs, empowered by state-sponsored intolerance in mass media and supported by a repressive legislature, represent the true face of the oppressive regime.  

Just like in White Sun, class ideology is blurred and compensated for by the ideology of state service (the Russian characters’ hearts “bleed for the Great Power [derzhava]”). The Norseman invites both the protagonists and the viewers to transcend their liberal and/or conservative convictions and bond over a vague idea of “Motherland” in its problematically nostalgic Soviet form as articulated in the song “Where Motherland Begins” popularized in the patriotic Soviet-era espionage thriller Seventeen Moments of Spring (Semnadtsat’ mgnoveniia vesny, 1972, dir. Tat’iana Lioznova). The Norseman makes humorous but pointed use of this song when Ania includes it in a travel presentation to pitch a tour around Russia to Russian schoolchildren. When Ania plays the song to Zhenia, he thinks she has conspired “with everyone else” to taunt him about his decision to emigrate, while in fact he was supposed to put the presentation together but forgot to do so in the midst of his preparations to leave. Zhenia therefore lets down not only Ania as his partner in the travel business, but also future generations of Russians: instead of cultivating their love for their Motherland through exploring Russia, Zhenia is busy packing bags for Europe, a much sexier travel destination for Russian adults and children alike.   

norvegIn the end, Zhenia’s precarious balancing between the feminist and the harem is resolved by his re-marrying his Russian ex-wife Ania, their conception of a child, and his decision to remain in Russia. By the end of the film, Ania changes too, becoming more “balanced,” and closer to “the people.” In a conversation with her androgynous-looking mother earlier in the film, Ania self-critically calls them both “Norsemen,” notably using the masculine form and extending it to “all of us in Moscow.” She bases her judgment on a blog by an “ordinary” Russian woman from “provincial” Ulyanovsk who has emigrated to Norway and observes that “Norse women are not women at all; they walk around in some sort of jackets and keds, do not use makeup, are career-oriented, and pay for themselves in restaurants.” Unmarried and childless at forty, Ania lives in her office and wears boot-cut jeans and keds throughout the film. In one of the film’s final shots the viewer sees her in a domestic setting next to a full-length mirror with a stove and a washing machine in the background. Ania is pregnant and wearing a dress. In the meantime, Zhenia’s three Central Asian women employees, like caring wives, carry him to safety after the skinhead attack. All of this happens as Zhenia writes a mental letter to Brunhilde, inviting her reconstituted family (she also returned to her ex and is expecting another child) to join his and Loktev’s families for a multi-multi-cultural reunion. Tellingly, the Central Asian women are not among the invited.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Colby College, Waterville

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Works Cited

Anon. 2017. “Alena Zvantsova o fil’me Norveg.” Tretii Ural'skii otkrytyi festival' kino.

Aref’ev, Egor. 2014. “Mironov obzavelsia kirgizskim garemom.” Komsomol'skaia pravda, (28 November).

Beumers, Birgit. 2014. “A ‘Hero of our Time’: The Gastarbeiter in Recent Russian Cinema.” Zeitschrift fur Slavische Philologie 70 (1): 161–178.

Prokhorova, Elena. 2010. “Mending the Rupture: The War Trope and the Return of the Imperial Father in 1970s Cinema.” In Helena Goscilo and Yana Hashamova. Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film, pp. 51-69. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

The Norseman, Russia, 2015
Color, 108 min.
Director: Alena Zvantsova
Scriptwriter: Alena Zvantsova
DoP: Dmitrii Gribanov
Production Design: Leonid Karpov
Sound: Oleg Tatarinov
Composer: Dmitrii Dan'kov
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian
Cast: Evgenii Mironov, Severija Janušauskaite, Dmitrii Mar’ianov, Kseniia Rappoport, Roza Khairulina, Yang Ge, Sabina Akhmedova, Ol’ga Mukukenova, Aliza Abdieva, Meerikan Mirzalieva, Andrei Merzlikin, Vitalii Kovalenko
Production: Mars Media Entertainment

Alena Zvantsova: The Norseman (Norveg, 2015)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2018

Updated: 2018