Issue 67 (2020)

Sarik Andreasian: Unforgiven (Neproshchennyi, 2018)

reviewed by Dušan Radunović © 2020

The Art of not Asking the Right Question

neproshchennyiThe name of the Armenia born, Moscow-based director and producer Sarik Andreasian is associated with some of the greatest box office successes that Russian cinema has seen in the past decade. Capitalizing on the resurgent co-production, distribution and exhibition networks in the former Soviet space (Earthquake [Zemletriasenie, 2016]) and more globally (American Heist [Ograblenie po amerikanski], 2015), Andreasian’s films owe their commercial success to a set of factors. These, to begin with, include the utilization of the post-Soviet cinematic nostalgia (remake of El’dar Riazanov’s Office Romance [Sluzhebnyi roman, 1977], or adaptation of children’s adventure novels by Astrid Lindgren, That Still Karloson! [Tot eshche Karloson, 2012]), exploitation of a variety of commercial film genres (from family comedy and science fiction, to horror), and abundant use of digital technology, from computer animation in Karloson, to 3D and CGI in Mafia: a Survival Game [Mafiia: igra na vyzhivanie] and The Guardians [Zashchitniki, 2017]). Therefore, at least technically and in terms of box office figures, one is tempted to assume that Andreasian’s genre-defined, highly prolific output offers a sustainable model for the Russian film market of the new era, in which a filmmaker is met with increasing demands to pay heed to the shifting patterns of consumption, global and local alike.

neproshchennyiAndreasian’s film Unforgiven is emblematic of much of the above, but here the Erevan-born director expands on the territories hitherto unknown to his viewer: involvement with recent Russian history and, by extension, more immediate engagement with what one could only tentatively call “social demand,” that is, various forms of social ideology that underpin the Russian society of the 2000s. At the surface level, at least, Unforgiven is a full-blown biopic, which builds its narrative around the July 2002 mid-air disaster in which a Russian passenger jet, with 69 passengers on board (mainly school-children), collided with a cargo jet over the southern German town of Überlingen, leading to the death of everyone on board. The details surrounding the tragic event are as essential for the film’s plot and its putative morale, as is its tragic outcome of the collision: the air crash was caused by an error of a Swiss-based en route air-traffic controller, who failed to spot the approaching catastrophe and issue a timely warning to the pilots. The film’s protagonist and its central moral axis is the Ossetian Russian man Vitalii Kaloev (played by Dmitrii Nagiev), whose wife and two children die in the disaster. Kaloev’s attempts to cope with his loss and, above all, the moral economy that he establishes in the wake of the catastrophic event are the crucial propellants of the film’s narrative.

neproshchennyiA civil engineer, Kaloev is portrayed as a selfless, provincial middle class man, whose life revolves around his career, but, above all else, around his beloved wife Svetlana, son Kostia and, especially, daughter Diana. The opening sequence of the film, which chronologically predates the moment of the disaster, portrays with undaunted simplicity an image of family idyll to set a necessary contrasting background to the dramatic turn of events, but also to tap into the discourses of conservative renewal, within which family values are increasingly playing a major role. Indeed, Andreasian’s portrayal of the Kaloevs abides by the conventions of what can be classified as dobroe kino (a term applied to post-Soviet, socially conforming, anodyne film production). The family nest is an unrealistically opulent mansion; Svetlana (with a cross necklace) is a paradigmatic housewife whose only concern is her husband’s habit of overworking himself; Kostia is consumed by chess (he, of course, prefers Karpov to Kasparov), while Diana, appropriately for her age, believes in enchanted princes and princesses. Needless to say, the perpetuation of the clichés about the values of nuclear family is purely formulaic and reveals little in the way of everyday life, let alone the social relations in the north Caucasus where much of the action is set.

neproshchennyi It is against this background that the tragedy in which Kaloev’s family tragically disappears aboard the Bashkirian Airlines plane is set. Having received the news of the crash, Kaloev first suffers a breakdown, but upon recovery, the camera follows him as he flies to the site of catastrophe to take part in the recovery of the bodies of his family members. This part of the film, which represents with fair deal of accuracy the real unfolding of events, is of import for the moral economy of the film insofar as it foregrounds the concept of individual agency in its juxtaposition with social structures, which will play pivotal role in the subsequent narrative. If Kaloev’s personal loss is a technical trigger that sets the plot of the film in motion, what propels the film in a more profound, ethical sense, are Kaloev’s tantalizing individual efforts to “right the wrongs” of societal and more universal kind. In the follow-up to the tragedy, Kaloev is offered a financial compensation for the death of his family members, something he declines with indignation [“I don’t trade with dead children”]. The juxtaposition of a pragmatic, mercantile corporate ethos and uncorrupt individual moral stance is crucial for the shaping of the film’s morale: it is the attempted commodification of familial loyalty and loss (on the part of the Swiss air-traffic control company) that enables Andreasian to claim high moral grounds for his hero. As a result, in the eyes of the viewer Kaloev grows from being a grieving husband and father, into a defender of more universal human principles and values.

neproshchennyiThe high import placed on individual moral agency in Unforgiven brings us back to the question of Andreasian’s approach to genre. Formally at least, the film lies at the intersection of a family film, psychological drama and revenge thriller, but the almost mythical individualism of its protagonist and, in particular, the film’s progressive reversal of antinomy between law and lawlessness, reveal the elements of a western movie in Unforgiven (a somewhat outlandish connection that will be further supported by the ostentatiousness of Andreasian’s visual language). Indeed, Kaloev, who is slowly slipping towards the social boundary of what is acceptable and what is not, but who still maintains a deep and abiding personal sense of justice and fairness, embarks on his own pursuit for justice. Through a private detective, he obtains the home address of the incriminated, but released by court, air-traffic controller Peter Nielsen, flies to Switzerland to meet him in person and receive moral satisfaction from him. Things, however, do not go according to plan. Nielsen brushes off Kaloev’s request to apologize for his error and the latter, in outrage, kills him on his doorstep.

The way in which Andreasian narrates this crucial scene speaks volumes of the morale of the film as a whole. While the screen time and framing in the sequence before the killing of Nielsen is equally shared between him and Kaloev (their encounter is filmed in a succession of over-the-shoulder close-up shots), this economy radically changes with the act of killing. In a 60 seconds long slow-motion tracking shot, Kaloev is shown as he turns his back to the stabbed Nielsen and leaves the scene. In a gesture that is strongly reminiscent of the late style of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, Andreasian closes up on Kaloev alone, leaving Nielsen and his accompanying wife in the background controversially out of focus. A conscious manoeuver without doubt, the decision not to use deep focus controversially relegates the dying Nielsen to an event that is lesser in importance than Kaloev’s dispensation of justice.

neproshchennyiTo corroborate this point further, we should juxtapose the tracking shot of Kaloev’s departure with a scene set in a court in which Kaloev is also shown in a close up as he is giving his statement. This time, what we see in the background are Kaloev’s brother and other relatives, but, unlike in the murder scene, Kaloev casts his gaze backwards to acknowledge their presence, at which moment the camera refocuses accordingly on his brother, who now becomes clearly visible on screen. No doubt, this gaze is the gaze of recognition, which visually reasserts the differentiation between private morality and public law, between one man’s own moral pursuit and societal norms. Rooted in a different system of loyalty, the message is, Kaloev’s actions demand to be judged accordingly, by different moral codes.

This ethos of moral arbitrariness is laid out even more blatantly in a scene that immediately follows the killing of Nielsen. Having returned to the hotel, Kaloev is shown washing his hands: by filming Kaloev from a high angle point of view and by closing up on hands alone, Andreasian, in an even more glaringly blatant manner, delivers the message of self-absolution. Furthermore, Kaloev then goes on to cut his beard, clearly, if superficially, emulating the Judeo-Christian rite marking the passing of a period of mourning. The mourning, let there be no mistake, was the mourning of the only legitimate objects of mourning in the film: Kaloev’s wife and children. The unstated, but pervasive hierarchy of victimhood in Andreasian’s film, in which some victims will be not only mourned and even avenged, while some others will be destined to oblivion, brings us back to the titular uncertainty of the film. Indeed, who is unforgiven in the film and, consequently, what is the view that the film takes on some of the fundamental existential and moral questions that it intentionally revolves around, namely those of sin, justice and forgiveness?

neproshchennyiThe answer that Andreasian gives to these questions is unusually vague for the type of film his Unforgiven purports to be. Having spent only two years in prison for the murder of Nielsen (the Swiss Supreme Court approved an early release), Kaloev returns to his Ossetian home, where he struggles to piece his life together. Unsurprisingly, what haunts Kaloev are the memories of his tragic past: wherever he turns, Kaloev is reminded of his missing family: the daughter Diana and her “enchanted cat”, Kostya’s toy dinosaur, or Svetlana’s gentle reprimands. The death he inflicted on Peter Nielsen does not seem to trouble Vitalii in the slightest. Indeed, the final moral reckoning that the film, among other things, should address is the one raised by its implicit titular question. Yet Kaloev lacks the means to provide it and shows an utter disregard for it. 

However, a few months later, the film stages a rather extraordinary resolution to Kaloev’s mores. In the final scene, that is to say, in lieu of a denouement, Vitalii encounters a kitten on his doorstep. In the overly simplistic and naïve network of symbolic references, which Andreasian progressively builds throughout the film, the kitten unmistakably signifies a spiritual reference to Kaloev’s daughter, or to his family as a whole. Alternatively, but with an equal degree of simplification, this final gesture by Andreasian could be understood as what object analysis would call a “transitional object”, that is, as a symbolic replacement that enables one to cope with real loss and carry on in life. In the final scene of the film, the encounter with kitten has a transformative, even redemptive impact upon Kaloev. Therefore, whichever interpretative route one takes to the film’s finale, it would fail colossally to mend the gaping ethical shortfall of Andreasian film, the shortfall caused by the film’s simplistic and deliberately distortive treatment of the fundamental questions of killing, justice and human accountability.

Dušan Radunović
University of Durham

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Unforgiven, Russia, 2018
Color, 106 minutes, 1:2.35, 5.1 Dolby
Director: Sarik Andreasian
Script: Sarik Andreasian, Aleksei Gravitskii, Matthew Jacobs, Sergei Volkov
Production Design: David Dadnashvili
DoP: Morad Abdel Fattakh
Editing: Georgii Isaakyan
Music: Mark Dorbskii
Cast: Dmitrii Nagiev, Roza Khairullina, Mardzhan Avetisian, Mikhail Gorevoi, Samvel Muzhikian, Vadim Tsaplati, Karina Kagramanian, Artem Shkliaev, Irina Bezrukova, Sebastien Sisak, Andrius Paulavicius
Producers: Armen Ananikyan, Gevond Andreasian, Sarik Andreasian, Aleksei Riazantsev, Vladimir Maslov
Production: Bol’shoe Kino

Sarik Andreasian: Unforgiven (Neproshchennyi, 2018)

reviewed by Dušan Radunović © 2020

Updated: 2020