Issue 67 (2020)

Aleksandr Lungin: Great Poetry (Bol’shaia poeziia, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Sbitneva © 2020


bolshaya poeziaThe image of the 1990s keeps looming on the cultural horizon in music, films, fashion, and on TV. In 2019 alone there were several films that worked with the theme of the 90s in one way or another— The Bull (Byk, 2019) by Boris Akopov, The Liver (Pechen’, 2019) by Ivan Snezhkin and, in an indirect manner, Aleksandr Lungin’s Great Poetry. One cannot help but notice the increased interest in this decade and the need of artists to recycle images of that time. As Snezhkin said in an interview to sobaka.ru, he chose the 90s as the period in which to set the action of his film, because he wanted to tell about an era that seems scary to many, tell it in an unusual way, try to show the time of hopes and illusions that soon there will be IKEA instead of sovok” (Anisimova 2019). His aim was to subvert the stereotypical representation of the 90s as the formidable time for crime and pervasive troubles.

The story with Aleksandr Lungin’s Great Poetry, his second work as a director, is a little different. The reference to the 1990s here is a more subtle maneuver. The story is set in the Moscow region, in a small town called Zheleznodorozhnyi, in today’s Russia; it evolves around two ordinary young men, Viktor (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and Lekha (Aleksei Filimonov), who just came back from the war in Lugansk. They are trying to find their place under the sun, but the only job they can get is dragging bags of money from one bank to another as cash collectors. There is nothing but a poetry class which they take together as distraction, but at some point even that poetry is not enough and they search for a greater kind of poetry, which in different scenes of the film rhymes either with war or crime. In his review of the film in Iskusstvo kino Aleksei Filippov notes that Great Poetry is produced stylistically as a criminal drama and the references to Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997) are writ large (Filippov 2019). As a counterpart to Viktor, the main character in Brother is the young Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr), who has just returned from the war, allegedly the Chechen war; he moves to St Petersburg from the provinces to reunite with his brother, Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), a criminal authority in town. The more the plot of Brother proceeds, the more we see how this young man of war turns into an assassin, a criminal sticking to his own moral code.

bolshaya poeziaThe parallels between Balabanov’s Danila and Lungin’s Viktor do not end here. Like Danila, Lungin’s Viktor sees a battlefield everywhere and entertains brotherly bonds with his (older) friend Lekha, echoing those of Danila towards his (elder) brother. Viktor’s experience as a soldier shows from the opening scene of the film, where cash collectors Viktor and Lekha need to protect the bank from a robbery. We observe a stark contrast between these two characters: Viktor stays focused and collected, he is ready for combat at any moment and shoots the robbers, though his attempt fails—the criminals manage to escape, dropping only one bag of the loot. Lekha, on the other hand, wets himself and is numb, unable to do anything; he is portrayed as an emasculated hero, who lacks the traditional manliness, which the viewer should not see as something negative, but more like a way of juxtaposing two personalities. The acting is quite convincing and strengthens this impression: Kuznetsov as Viktor is a perfect match for the part of an aloof killer, while Filimonov as Lekha, agitated and jumpy, is impeccable as a wretched gopnik (a crook).

As often happens with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) patients returning from war, the brotherly bonds and absence or neglect of a father-figure is apparent: no one ever mentions anybody s father in the film, as if the characters did not have families at all. Even the characters’ love-life does not seem to be of any importance. The case here is similar to Brother, although Viktor chooses Olga, his love interest, over his friend Lekha at first. However, very quickly he shifts his priorities and prefers frère over femme in the end. The relationship with a woman, whose feelings seem to be more ephemeral in comparison to those of a true friend, cannot fulfill the need for true kinship. It seems that here lies the biggest flaw of the film: all the female characters appear to be flat and insignificant; they are needed in the plot as pretty decorations or just to provide depth to the male characters. Autonomously, they would not be able to exist in the film’s universe created by the director. However, the gist behind this lies not in feminist issues, but rather in the issue of masculinity.

bolshaya poeziaThere is a myriad of moments when Viktor s hypermasculinity is conspicuous, together with anger management problems and reservedness in combat: he boxes the punching bag, attacks the bullies of Olga’s son and is mesmerized by cockfights. Viktor speaks unfavorably about rappers like Oxxymiron and FACE, whom Lekha adores. During one of their shifts when Lekha comments on the music they are listening to, a song by FACE called “Salam” (“Hello” in Arabic), arguing that this is true poetry; Viktor replies that FACE lacks masculinity: All barking, no bite.” His ostentatious bravery seems infantile to Viktor. Nevertheless, the song by FACE here works as a leitmotif, like the music of Nautilus Pompilius was for Danila in Brother. The narrator in FACE s song is similar to Viktor and Lekha: they all belong either to law enforcement or security agencies, those institutions traditionally associated with violence and death. Add to this the fact that they are all surrounded by the same aura of despair, poverty, and social instability. When Viktor refuses to give his friend the money he received as a reward for the defence of the bank, claiming that it is for a rainy day, Lekha answers that all of their days are rainy. To that end, the music in the film—mostly rap—turns into a full-fledged character and resonates perfectly with the environment, which the protagonists have to endure.

This environment is well captured by the marginal culture of Russian rap, which is, for instance, exposed in the song “Panel House” by Husky (“Panelka,” where a panelka is an informal term for Plattenbau, or the use of prefabricated concrete slabs in housing construction), where he claims that panelka is a constitutive part of contemporary Russian culture. Such a panelka suburbia is exactly the place where the plot of the film unfolds. This is the scenery, for example, on which Viktor and Olga feast their eyes at their first date at the landfill. In Brother it’s the big city that changes people; in Great Poetry it’s the suburbs, which take the power away from the strong, but this happens not because of the chase for money, but because of social circumstances, as described in FACE s or Haski’s texts: because of poverty and despair. People do not have any entertainment other than war and cockfights, and poetry is an escape for those who are bold enough to try.

bolshaya poeziaMoreover, the cockfights are a metaphor for Viktor’s character and his masculinity. If the heroes, with whom Lekha surrounds himself in his daily routine, are Russian rappers, then for Viktor these heroes are roosters. There is a painting of them in his bedroom, a couple of photos in the locker at work. When one of the roosters is injured in the cockfight, his owner calls him a soldier, so when this rooster is put against Viktor, it is as his symbolic embodiment. When looking at these roosters, one can see just how miserable and ragged they are; they are made to fight, to hurt each other, and to die in the end for people’s pleasure. This image becomes a perfect symbol for the meaningless cruelty of war, the chronotope of exaggerated violence. It is on the one hand a perfect soldier, honorable and stoic, and on the other hand an object, not integrated into society, performing violence on command. Viktor deliberately associates himself with this symbol, admitting that he is a killing machine. Yet violence does not stop there. To prove his point, Viktor is ready to hurt even himself. When Viktor comes to an interview with a blogger who starts asking him about combat in Lugansk, trying to show something real to the people of post-truth and post-irony, he stabs his palm with an army knife and is ostracized by the public and his beloved.

In the end, it comes as no surprise that Viktor s adjustment to everyday life is poor when compared to that of Danila Bagrov. The criminal St Petersburg of the 90s could provide Danila with a welcoming environment: there were at least criminal brawls, where a man of war could fit in. As Lungin voiced at the Kinotavr press conference, Viktor’s generation is like that of Danila in its confusion and misery. There are always people suffering from PTSD, though the outcome differs from generation to generation. The final scenes of both films demonstrate that: one hero is victorious and the other loses his battle. This is where the social transformation that happened in Russia in the last two decades is crucial. The dissatisfaction with the social conditions has not faded away, but the opportunities to express it have. Therefore Danila managed to escape three big cities eventually—St Petersburg, Moscow and Chicago in Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000); in 2019 Viktor is doomed to perish in the tranquil surroundings of the outskirts of Moscow. The fact that Danila is triumphant in the end is indicative not just of his adaptability to his environment, but also proves him a hero of his time. Viktor is unimaginable in the role of such a hero, because of his unsociability, aggressive outbursts and the need for something true in the era of post-irony.

Anna Sbitneva
Passau University

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Works Cited

Anisimova, Elena. 2019. “Rezhisser Ivan Snezhkin: ‘My ne takie skuchnye i khotim snimat' fil'my dlia zritelei’.” Interview with Ivan Snezhkin. sobaka.ru, 6 August.

Filippov, Aleksei. 2019. “Bol’shaia poezia—kino pro rep, TCHOP i LNR.” Iskusstvo kino 12 June.

 


Great Poetry, Russia, 2019
Color, 118 min., 1:2.35, Dolby 5.1
Director Aleksandr Lungin
Scriptwriters Aleksandr Lungin, Sergei Osipyan
DoP Vsevolod Kaptur
Production Design Roman Chesnov, Anastasia Klokova
Music Stanislav Smirnov
Editing Vladislav Kaptur, Mukharam Kabulova
Cast: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Aleksei Filimonov, Fedor Lavrov, Evgenii Sytyi, Elena Makhova, Aleksandr Topuriya
Producers Violetta Krechetova, Sergei Osipyan, Sergei Shtern, Artem Vasiliev, Pavel Lungin, Dmitri Gorelik, Ivan Grodetskii, Sofia Kvashilava
Production addressfilm, Pavel Lungin’s Workshop, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Aleksandr Lungin: Great Poetry (Bol’shaia poeziia, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Sbitneva © 2020

Updated: 2020