Issue 72 (2021)

Dmitrii Mamuliia: The Criminal Man (Borotmokmedi / Prestupnyi chelovek, 2019)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2021

criminal manThe Criminal Man is the second feature by director, film theorist, and artistic director of the Moscow New Cinema School Dmitrii Mamuliia. The film opens with an extremely wide shot of two cars driving down an unpaved road, somewhere outside of Tbilisi, in an undeveloped area along a highway. The camera alternates between two perspectives: a distant view from the highway and one from within the car’s interior. All we hear are the sounds of tires on dirt and the hum of cars passing on the highway above. Once the cars stop, we watch as a man—the goalkeeper for the Georgian national football team, as the storyline later reveals—is dragged from the backseat, shot three times, and left on the ground. A passerby on the highway witnesses the crime from a distance. And thus, The Criminal Man begins as a murder mystery, following the protagonist as he becomes increasingly drawn into a high-profile crime and the people it affects. Beyond these early establishing shots, the film’s plot is difficult to summarize, as it is governed not by a linear narrative structure but by the psychological perspective of the protagonist. Moreover, the film involves the viewer in this psychological journey such that by the end, the opening sequence has changed—not just in how we perceive it, but in the actual facts of its composition. Why was the protagonist stopped on a desolate stretch of highway at that exact moment? Why does he watch the crime with such dispassion and why doesn’t he go to the police? These questions grow in force as the film progresses, blending the boundaries between witness and actor, between objective and subjective truth, and between linear versus psychological structure at the level of film narrative.

criminal manMamuliia has established himself as a filmmaker with a distinctive style, and we can trace many features of his work from his 2010 film, Another Sky (Drugoe nebo), to The Criminal Man. First is his choice to work with amateur actors whenever possible, with the belief that non-actors are better able to “become the character,” as he articulated in a 2019 interview, while professionals are trained to adopt their characters as roles (Prestridge 2019). In the case of The Criminal Man, the only actor with professional training is Nataliia Dzhugeli, who plays the role of a young mother whose husband is imprisoned for murder. The murdered goalkeeper is played by real-life footballer Nukri Revishvili, a retired player for Georgia’s national team. The lead role of Giorgi Meskhi is acted by Giorgi Patriashvili, who worked as a security guard at the Tbilisi Institute of Culture before joining the cast. Patriashvili plays the role of Giorgi with an expressionless face, drawn-out movements, and an absence of any theatricality, looking essentially unchanged in his features from scene to scene. The role of Giorgi is “non-acted” to such a degree that this character does not create a world on screen, as we might expect from traditional cinematic acting, but instead appears to be a stranger within it, as if his character is attempting to avoid detection by the camera. In his theoretical lectures on film, Mamuliia speaks about minimizing theatricality so that an actor can express his own existential experience more authentically on screen: absorbing the film into one’s own self, rather than entering into the world of the film (Mamuliia 2019).
A second characteristic of Mamuliia’s films are their lack of non-diegetic soundtrack, which lends a sense of heightened awareness to the events on screen. There are only two songs included in The Criminal Man, both occurring at psychologically heightened moments in the film: one plays briefly on the car radio and the second occurs during the frenzied dance scene at the bar. The rest of the film is populated by the sounds of highway traffic, the bleating of sheep, the deafening rumble of machinery at the mine where the protagonist works, and sound from the TV in the protagonist’s apartment—the latter playing a significant role in the narrative exposition of the film. The first dialogue in The Criminal Man is spoken almost nine minutes into the film: a female employee at a mine reports to the dispatcher: “The stone crusher isn’t working.” The banality of the film’s spoken statements is juxtaposed against the much darker layers of what remains unspoken and unrevealed. The most palpable darkness is not Giorgi’s descent into madness, but the burdens that the film’s three acts of murder inflict upon the female characters: the panic of a young woman as she is followed home by a stranger late at night; the realization by two women that they have just become widows and single mothers; and the recognition by Giorgi’s sister that she is raising a daughter with a dark inner world, much like that of her own brother.

criminal manThe film employs other framing devices to convey psychological estrangement and cut the protagonist off from the viewer, highlighting the extent to which we are not privy to the full details of his story. Sometimes this is achieved through language: muffled speech and short sentences, whereby speech acts serve a purely perfunctory function and are not a way for characters to connect. Often Mamuliia’s framing devices involve physically blocking the protagonist from the viewer. Giorgi is presented in profile, from a distance, in the rear-view mirror of a car, and with his face and body partitioned by doorframes, windows, or by shadow. Nor do we learn much about him and his motivations; in fact, he goes unnamed for much of the film. The striking scenes at his place of work were filmed at the mining colony in Chiatura, and the Stalin-era cable car system that takes workers up and down the mountain becomes a defining image of the film. The mine is not central to Giorgi’s story, per se, but functions as a psychological metaphor. If his trip up the mountain in the aging cable car visualizes his ascent towards delusions of grandeur, then the dark depths of the mines and the potential for tragedy within, likewise, mirror his eventually descent into madness. What is more, the scenes at Chiatura contribute to the nowhere setting of the film, given that the TV broadcast pinpoints the murder site in the outskirts of Tbilisi, and yet Chiatura is nearly 200 kilometers away. Finally, connecting the protagonist to physical labor ties him to the working class, and although the film does not have a clear social message, this connection establishes him as a man “with nothing to lose,” in opposition to the murdered goalkeeper. The concept of class, for Mamuliia, factors into his decision to work with non-professional actors. “Actors belong to a social group of individuals who are incorporated into the system,” Mamuliia stated in a 2020 interview, “and I film people who live in a different space of motivation” (Pronchenko 2020). 

criminal manA fourth characteristic of Mamuliia’s filmmaking brings us back to the use of the TV as a device for narrative exposition and psychological commentary. Most of what we learn about the criminal investigation comes from the television. We hear about the progress of the case, about how much time has passed, and about the evidence in play: that the police found a lighter at the scene, that cameras caught two cars on film, and how local shepherds reported gunshots at night but saw nothing. The TV also serves as a counterpoint to Giorgi’s narrative perspective. We see him watching the television, sometimes for several minutes in real time, a choice that shuttles the focus of our viewing from the protagonist to the facts of the case and then back, raising the question of where the truth of the incident resides. These early extended scenes with the television are the first piece of evidence that the protagonist in this film knows more than the viewer does.

criminal manAs Giorgi becomes increasingly obsessed with his role as witness, he begins acting more and more like a killer himself. He attends the athlete’s funeral, spies on local shepherds, and follows the young widow around the city. He takes his sister and niece to visit the scene of the crime, all dressed in mourning attire. He hangs around the local soccer training complex and returns over and over again to the site of the murder, including laying down on the spot where the dead man was found. He starts researching murder cases, buys a gun, and frequents locations of the criminal underground. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Giorgi seeks out detectives without being summoned, as if out of desperation to confess. We can also find traces of Sonia Marmeladova in the wife of a man found guilty of pushing his co-worker into a mine shaft. When the protagonist asks how she can love a murderer, she replies: “I love him all the more.” Conventional wisdom tells us that murderers are drawn to the scenes of their crimes, eager to relive their acts of violence. How, then, are we to explain the protagonist’s fascination with this event? Raskolnikov, after all, was a murderer and not just a witness. In an interview ahead of the film’s premiere at Venice 2019, Mamuliia described how “the murder witnessed from afar inhabits the character like a virus, captures him” (Prestridge 2019). By the midpoint of the film, the protagonist has studied murder so closely, including becoming involved in a suspicious incident at the mine, that he next turns to committing it himself, attacking a woman on her way home after a night at the bar.

criminal manFrom here on the plot is hazy, governed now by association and the protagonist’s deteriorating psychological state. The linear objectivity of the TV is replaced by the changing seasons as the primary indicator of passing time, as Giorgi returns to the scene of the crime for a full calendar year. His inner world is represented through natural metaphors for death: a bird carcass on the ground, a flock of birds swarming over a single spot, and birds of prey perched in the room where he now spends his nights. Mamuliia’s own description of his filmmaking highlight the importance of objects over story: “You have to understand that I don’t film narratives. I film objects, faces, and landscapes containing mental value” (Pronchenko 2020). Minor plotlines function as further omens within the broader mood of the film. There is a story of a police officer’s lengthy phone calls with his wife, who is dying of cancer. There is an incident at school, where the protagonist’s niece draws a disturbing picture. After he has been taken to jail, Giorgi’s sister writes him a letter: his niece hugged a dog carcass on the road, came down with a fever, and is hallucinating birds in her room. “I died. That dog was me,” he writes in return. “I want to be born again.”

criminal manThe film is organized in four parts, each of which represent a new stage in Giorgi’s metamorphosis: (1) A Witness to a Crime; (2) The Birth of a Murderer; (3) The Sudden Death of a Worker; (4) Sun. The opening sequence, with its contrasting distant and close camera perspectives, is indicative of a broader problem raised by the film: the question of narration, including the literary device of the unreliable narrator. By the middle of The Criminal Man, each cut to a new scene indicates a new stage in Giorgi’s decline, thereby explaining the increasing incoherence among events. Towards the end of the film, the opening sequence is replayed, but with a critical detail changed. Now we see in the rearview mirror of the car that he is the driver. The two competing perspectives that opened the film—witness and accomplice—are now collapsed into a single individual. The film’s extreme focus on psychological interiority makes it highly abstracted, appearing to be set both in Georgia and nowhere; both in the present moment and in some unidentified recent past. At the same time, Mamuliia has stated that the film is about the “absolute impossibility of being yourself today,” and that “[t]his discord has monopolized the world” (Pronchenko 2020). Perhaps like Raskolnikov, Giorgi is a victim of his time: that he commits the murder to prove he exists, to assert his agency in a world of deterministic forces. Yet, the film’s ending leaves open the question of narrative reliability: was Giorgi really in the car or has he imagined himself there? It is important to note that The Criminal Man ends not with Giorgi, but with loving words from a mother to her children. And thus, like Crime and Punishment, the film concludes with a new story—one of openness and light, the possibility to fulfill his wish to be “born again,” and a way out of the darker instincts of Giorgi’s existence.

Alyssa DeBlasio
Dickinson College

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Works Cited

Mamuliia, Dmitrii. 2019. “Mozhet li osel byt’ tragicheskim. Iazyki kino,” YouTube.

Prestridge, James. 2019. “Venice 2019: Director Dmitry Mamuliya On ‘The Criminal Man’ And Investigating The Genealogy Of Crime,” Close-up Culture 30 August.

Pronchenko, Zinaida. 2020. “Lozhnye voprosy stanoviatsia podlinnymi tol’ko v Rossii,” Iskusstvo kino 27 August.

The Criminal Man, Georgia & Russia, 2019
Color, 135 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Mamuliia
Screenplay: Dmitrii Mamuliia, Archil Kikodze, Mariia Ignatenko
Cinematography: Anton Gromov, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Sound: Paata Godziashvili
Editing: Andrei Klychnikov
Production Design: Kote Dzhaparidze, Nikita Evglevskii, Temo Kartelishvili
Cast: Giorgi Petriashvili, Nataliia Dzhugeli, Madona Chachkhiani, Nukri Revishvili, Vladimir Kobakhidze, Vasilisa Zemskova
Producer: Suliko Tsulukidze, Tamara Bogdanova, Mikhail Karasev
Production: Millimeter Film (GE), Kinokult Producer’s Center (RU)

Dmitrii Mamuliia: The Criminal Man (Borotmokmedi / Prestupnyi chelovek, 2019)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2021

Updated: 2021