Issue 61 (2018)

Rustam Mosafir: The Scythian (Skif, 2018)

reviewed by Denis Saltykov © 2018

Contemporary Russian cinema that receives critical attention can be roughly divided into two major strands. The first one contains movies with big budgets, usually associated with money coming from the Cinema Foundation of Russia and with an explicit orientation toward the widest audience. Even though the term is problematic, this type of movie can be called “Russian blockbuster cinema” because it is analogous to its Hollywood counterpart. The other strand, usually called “Russian art-house cinema,” is characterized by a strong auteuristic vision, microbudget, and an orientation toward intellectuals and cinephiles. Because they are associated with different groups of viewers and different groups of creators, the two strands also often imply different political orientations. While producing a blockbuster is impossible without support from state institutions, it is therefore associated with patriotism and political support of the values claimed by the state elites. On the other side, art-house cinema relies more on festival success and intellectual recognition among the audiences mostly associated with high culture, which makes it politically different in Russia. What is absent in this scheme is genre cinema that doesn’t necessarily imply a complex message yet is still strongly dependent on funding that makes it risky to produce, especially when it comes to action, horror, and thriller films. Fans of these genres tend to prefer brutal stylistics, including realistic blood and graphic depictions of violence. Meanwhile decent genre cinema that goes beyond the opposition between the Russian patriotic blockbuster and the Russian high-brow art-house cinema has the potential to develop and introduce (even if it derives from Western models) aesthetics that are new to the national film industry. While looking like another patriotic history flick at first glance, The Scythian, directed by Rustam Mosafir turns out to be a brutal action-fantasy genre piece that may offer both a fresh cinematic style and an unconventional political message.

skifThe Scythian’s setting is introduced in the opening titles: “On the periphery of ancient countries, over hilly steppes and bay, on the shores of the sea, stretched the Tmutarakan principality. And that was the time of the decline of the power of Scythians. When their old world disappeared, so too did ancient gods and heroes pass. When the time of new battles and ventures began, so too did courageous hearts and a powerful spirit begin, about which legends were told.” Even these few sentences can tell us a lot about the film’s relation to history. Historians may say that while Scythians existed and there was a Kievan Rus’ fortress called Tmutarakan, they existed in different times: the Scythians had disappeared long before Tmutarakan’s foundation. Mosafir’s story takes historical names and uses them in a fantasy plot where the exact period doesn’t really matter. The movie has to do with reality, but a symbolic one rather than a literal one. Regardless of what the real Scythians had been, the Russian poet Alexander Blok used them to symbolize the Russian otherness to Europe. His poem The Scythians (1918) is well-known to every Russian. It’s safe to claim that its lines “Yes, we are Scythians—leafs of the Asian tree, // Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed,” are much more popular in Russia than any academic piece on ancient history. Thus Mosafir involves in his dark fantasy film a national orientalist association with Russian inner wilderness. Likewise, Tmutarakan is also better known as a symbol that appears in fairy tales to represent any distant and mysterious land.

The Scythian starts by introducing the principal characters. In the first scene we see a tattoo-covered warrior with a ginger mohawk assassinating men trying to have a meal. As the plot reveals, the warrior’s name is Kunitsa, which means “marten” in Russian. He is a young Scythian, a prominent contender for the role as the tribe’s leader. Scythians are known as the “wolves of Ares” (another pseudohistorical detail that contributes to the movie’s eclecticism). Their tribe is almost gone, but they survive by working as hitmen. We are also introduced to Lyutobor (his name can be translated as “an angry warrior”) who serves Tmutarakan’s prince Oleg. Oleg is trying to preserve peace with his temporary allies, Steppe people. Kumay, son of the Steppe leader, openly hates Lyutobor and mocks him. Held back by Oleg, Lyutobor fights Kumay bare-knuckled, but doesn’t let the conflict explode. Meanwhile Lyutobor’s wife Tatyana is giving birth to their first son. Soon the wife and the son are abducted by Scythians, and the Tmutarakan warrior receives an anonymous note that says the only chance to get the family back is to kill Oleg. Lyutobor talks to the prince, and Oleg decides to simulate poisoning, thus giving his warrior a chance to find his family and to find out who paid the Scythians for the operation. The protagonist takes Kunitsa as prisoner and forces the Scythian to help locate the abducted family.

Before creating The Scythian, Mosafir already had experience in directing genre cinema. His short film A White, White Day (Belyi-Belyi Den’, 2009) was a funny and clever exercise in film noir style. Mosafir’s feature debut The Runaways (Begletsy, 2014) was made in the Eastern genre and set in early 20th century Siberia. Then the director came up with an idea to film an action flick about the legendary Russian warrior Evpaty Kolovrat, who fought the Mongol ruler Batu Khan in the 13th century. Mosafir’s take on the story resembled John Milius’s dark Conan the Barbarian (1982) much more than recent Russian patriotic history movies such as Andrei Krachuk’s Viking (2016). At the same time, the large Russian studio Central Partnership pitched its own version of the legend, Furious (Legenda o Kolovrate, 2017) as a patriotic historical action that has Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) as a reference. Mosafir had failed to convince the Cinema Foundation of Russia that his darker version would be better, but the producer Aleksandr Rodniansky found the script interesting and suggested reworking it (Kolenskii 2018). Thus The Scythian appeared out of a failed attempt to direct a brutal action film about a Russian legendary hero.

skifThe film can easily be recognized as an homage to genre cinema. In the end credits Mosafir thanks “Mel Gibson, George Miller, Nicolas Winding Refn, Charles Bronson, Robert Howard, and Kurosawa for inspiration.” As noted above, Milius’s version of Conan the Barbarian was also among the most important inspirations. Even the opening titles are read aloud by a male voice like in Conan the Barbarian (and unlike, say, the famous Star Wars opening titles that is not accompanied by any reading voice), yet Mosafir decides to mention the author of the original Conan stories Robert Howard instead of Milius. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) and Apocalypto (2006) are other major influences, as well as the Westerns starring Charles Bronson and Akira Kurosawa’s Chanbaras (samurai action films). George Miller is mentioned for his dystopian Mad Max franchise. Nicolas Winding Refn’s film that apparently influenced The Scythian is Valhalla Rising (2009) with its distinct visual style.

To mention the influences in this analysis of The Scythian helps to clarify its genre and stylistic roots. Keeping these in mind we can proceed with specifying the particular ways in which Mosafir applies his cinematic literacy. As we remember, his brutal fairy tale also has to do with a reflexive Russian imaginary otherness hidden in medieval and even ancient (i.e., pagan) history. While Robert Howard put his Conan in a fictional prehistoric period (the Hyborean Age), made him worship a fictional deity (Crom), and only provided him with a real tribal origin (Conan is Cimmerian), describing it as a fictional one, Mosafir derives all his names and details from the actual history of Eurasia. Another big difference that appears here is Mosafir’s stronger sense of collectivity. In Milius’s Conan the Barbarian the main hero is a single warrior whose epic biography is described by an epigraph from Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” His tribe dies at the beginning of the story, and there are no other Cimmerians left except Conan. During the film the hero makes friends, but they accompany him only at some points of his journey without forming a unified group. It is also worth mentioning that American audiences don’t have any sense of emotional connection with the historical Cimmerians in a way that Russians who have read Blok have with the historical Scythians. In Mosafir’s movie we always see Kunitsa as one of the tribe. He is not the last representative of it, and he is always a representative that acts as a Scythian, not as an individual whose tribe is already gone. Moreover, it is the fate of the Scythian tribe that ends the plot. Scythians are not just a trigger to start Kunitsa’s story, but Lyutobor’s and Kunitsa’s story is a key for understanding the important ending that concentrates on the tribe. Unlike Milius’s Conan, Mosafir’s The Scythian is a film about a collectivity that is also implied by the title (it’s not Kunitsa or Lyutobor).

skifIn this fantasy groups do matter. Mosafir introduces at least four distinct tribes: Oleg’s Tmutarakan defenders (most similar to the direct ancestors of modern Russians), Scythians (represented as mysterious others whose historical fate is connected with Lyutobor and Oleg, particularly in the tragic end), Steppe people (exemplified with Kumay played by the director himself), and Berendeis. The latter are the craziest and the most savage, made to resemble the exotic characters from George Miller’s and George Ogilvie’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The Berendei leader is a dwarf riding a giant bodyguard, almost identic to Master riding Blaster met by Max in dystopian Bartertown. Costume designer Nadezhda Vasil’eva (Aleksei Balabanov’s widow, who has worked on most of his films) also reproduces for Berendeis some elements of the oasis children’s appearance from the same Mad Max movie. While trapped, Lyutobor drinks a Berendei psychedelic concoction, reveals his inner beast (that of a bear), and slays the entire tribe. The scene of the violent psychedelic trip is allegedly influenced by Valhalla Rising that Refn had directed in hallucinatory stylistics. At this moment we find out that Tmutarakan warriors are capable of committing genocide.

Throughout The Scythian, most people lie and betray others. At the beginning of the film, Kumay starts a fist fight with Lyutobor, but after several punches the Steppe warrior takes out his knife. A Christian merchant lies to Lyutobor when he promises not to report on him. Even Lyutobor himself doesn’t follow Oleg’s plea to spare the executioner and instead strangles him before his escape. The original customer who requested the abduction of Tatyana and her son and the assassination of Oleg turns out to be Oleg’s son Vseslav. The only people who do not lie are Scythians. When the Scythians decide to believe a man such as Lyutobor (who is actually turned into a Scythian, at least in half) and to follow him to join others in Oleg’s Tmutarakan, they face violence—Oleg snuffs them all out, saying: “We have long wanted to bring these Wolves to the cleaner. But we did not know where to find them.” If we interpret Mosafir’s action fantasy as a fairy tale about the roots of recent Russian identity, the final political message is quite disturbing. The ruler has chosen a violent colonial model, deciding to exterminate the beasts. But those beasts were inner others, strong and brutal, but incapable of deceit. Even the Steppe people turned out to be closer to Tmutarakan’s prince—perhaps since at the end of the day they are the same cheaters as he is. Unlike Scythians, they are at least understandable.

In a short scene hidden within the end credits Mosafir provides a little bit of hope. He shows two young Scythians—a boy and a girl—who have survived the genocide and have run away. There is a hope of having such honest “wolves of Ares,” descendants of the Scythians, in our times. Perhaps, Mosafir even points within the film to an example of such an honest beast. For a small role as a Scythian he hired Viacheslav Iurovskikh, better known as Ali-Baba—a cult Russian MMA-fighter. Ali-Baba deliberately stays homeless and travels from one tournament to another (Liutikov 2013). One of the tournaments where Ali-Baba has participated was The Spirit of Warrior (Dukh Voina) organized by White Rex, an infamous neo-Nazi organization that has close ties with ultra-right symbolic groups (see “Stop ‘White Rex’”). Ali-Baba is not necessarily a neo-Nazi and neither allegedly is Mosafir. But isn’t it telling that modern “honest beasts” that allegedly inherit the Scythian spirit are also the people that wouldn’t mind snuffing out a group of cultural “others” if it appears on their way?

Denis Saltykov
National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow

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Works Cited

Kolenskii, Aleksei. 2018. “Rustam Mosafir: “Glavnym istochnikom vdohnoeniia dlia “Skifa” stal “Konan-varvar.””” Kul’tura. 18 January.

Liutikov, Aleksandr. 2013. “Sil’naia boroda. Istoriia bedomnogo boitsa.” 29 May.

“Stop ‘White Rex’.” 2013. Avtonomnoe deistvie. 23 September.

The Scythian, Russia, 2018
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Rustam Mosafir
Script: Vadim Golovanov, Rustam Mosafir
Cinematography: Dmitrii Karnachik
Production Design: Sergei Fevralev, Aleksandr Kharin
Costume Design: Nadezhda Vasil’eva
Music: POTIR
Editing: Andrei Nazarov
Cast: Aleksei Faddeev, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Iurii Tsurilo, Vasilisa Izmailova
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Production Company: CTB Film Company

Rustam Mosafir: The Scythian (Skif, 2018)

reviewed by Denis Saltykov © 2018

Updated: 2018