Issue 73 (2021)

Dmitrii Rudakov: Maxim (Sententsiia, 2020)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2021

sententsiiaVarlam Shalamov (1907–1982) seems forever relegated to the shadows, an “also-ran” in the catalogue of great Soviet dissident writers, always ranked behind more strident exemplars (like Alexander Solzhenitsyn) or even the theatrically self-effacing (like Nadezhda Mandel’shtam). Yet as a poet and chronicler of the emotional world of Stalinism, whether in or out of the Gulag, Shalamov is every bit their equal. His admirers have seen his name beginning to reemerge recently, as the publication of Donald Rayfield’s new English translation of the complete Kolyma stories, in two massive volumes, has brought Shalamov’s dystopian vision to a 21st century readership. Whether Dmitrii Rudakov’s Maxim, a bleak tribute to to the writer in his devastating final years, will further contribute to a “Shalamov revival” remains to be seen.

“Maxim” is the title of one of the more elliptical and least accessible of Shalamov’s Kolyma stories (a story dedicated to Nadezhda Mandel’shtam). In it, a prisoner continually mutters a supposed nonsense word, the Latin sententia (“maxim” in English, sententsiia in Russian), to keep himself from falling asleep, which would lead to his death. Rudakov’s choice of this peculiar story as the inspiration for his film signifies his determination to take a similarly uncompromising stance toward his viewers.

sententsiiaFrom the film’s very beginning Rudakov (a protégé of Aleksei Uchitel’) makes it clear that he will not be catering to any crass audience expectations for interesting characters or dramatic tension or indeed, anything that resembles “real life.” Maxim’s ostentatiously artless style (16 mm camera, poorly lit interiors, irritating ambient sounds, deliberately awkward acting, painfully slow pacing, unnaturally well-enunciated dialogue, rejection of narrative conventions)represents a defiant challenge to the varnished and vanished world of Soviet socialist realism, the prevailing aesthetic of Shalamov’s times.

Maxim takes place at the end of Shalamov’s tragic life. In 1979, impoverished and alienated, blind, and in terrible health (both physical and mental), Shalamov was forcibly removed to one of the worst examples of a Soviet senior care home, this one in Tula. Rudakov not surprisingly presents the facility as just another in the series of prisons to which Shalamov was incarcerated on and off for nearly two decades, and it is certainly plausible that the aged and ailing author, who was probably also suffering from dementia, understood it that way, too. Rudakov introduces a subplot in which two well-meaning supporters track down artifacts of Shalamov’s few happy days and try to preserve his writings by arranging for them to be smuggled out of the country. These scenes, while stagey, provide some visual relief from the claustrophobic interiors of the shabby nursing home, reminding viewers that there was a world outside the gulag, with simple pleasures like a country house party or a casual walk in nature.  

sententsiiaRudakov obviously seeks to comment on Shalamov’s particular case, rather than on the fate of dissident writers in general. Unlike others, Shalamov never really enjoyed rehabilitation; we have no way of knowing what he was like as a young man before his first arrest in 1929.  But the years of injustice, deprivation, and cruelty took their toll; the man who returned to what passed for a free Soviet life in 1951 was by all accounts bitter and truculent. He was apparently a hard man to like and a harder man to help, but the film provides no sense of this. Rudakov’s Shalamov is a fragile shell, emptied of the words that had sustained him for so long.

The film’s retrograde style evokes the bleak political allegories of the 1960s, most particularly Jan Nemec’s A Report on the Party and Guests (O stavnosti a hostech, Czechoslovakia, 1966). Maxim is most effective in its uncompromising focus on the inexorable indignities of old age, its pain and decay, its cruelty and disorientation, its sheer tedium, which the brutal tedium of this film perfectly mirrors.  Watching it felt like the longest 100 minutes of my life—twice.

That was a deliberate artistic choice, of course.  Part of me admires Rudakov’s audacity in hewing to what appears to be a principled, total rejection of commercial considerations; the other part of me wishes that this young and talented director had relented just a little bit. Maxim had its world premiere in November 2020 at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, garnering a FIPRESCI prize, but it has yet to be picked up by a streaming service (as far as I can tell). This is not surprising. Unfortunately, I doubt that Maxim will find much of an audience or, more unfortunately, attract new readers to Shalamov’s lapidary tales of waking nightmares.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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Works Cited

Shalamov, Varlam. 2018. “Maxim.” In Kolyma Stories, vol. 1,translated by Donald Rayfield, 435-42. New York, New York Review Books.

Shalamov, Varlam. 2020. Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, translated by Donald Rayfield. New York: New York Review Books.

Maxim (Sententsiia), Russia, 2020
b/w, 100 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Rudakov
Screenplay: Dmitrii Rudakov
Producer: Kira Saksaganskaia
DoP: Aleksei Filippov
Production Design: Vania Bouden
Sound: Stepan Sevastianov
Cast: Aleksandr Riazantsev, Pavel Tabakov, Fedor Lavrov, Alena Konstantinova, Miriam Sekhon, Sergei Marin, Iuliia Marchenko, Valerii Zhukov, Ivan Krasko, Liliia Belikova, Magdalina Koshcheeva
Production: Rock Films Studio

Dmitrii Rudakov: Maxim (Sententsiia, 2020)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2021

Updated: 2021