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Aleksei Muradov: The Truth about Shelps (Pravda o shchelpakh) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004

Shelps, or the illusion of life

Three men – the painter Andrei Speranskii (Kamil Tukaev), the doctor Tolian Feldman (Aleksei Shliamin) and the unemployed Zema (Leonid Okunev) – are united around the coffin of a woman they have never seen before. It is with interest that they listen to the speech about the deceased, since they genuinely do not know whom they are burying here. The scene is absurd and comic at once, until it transpires that they have been summoned to the morgue by their old school-friend Dania Orlov, now a factory boss, who promised the old, lonely lady a decent funeral. The scene turns tragic and melodramatic, but then the absurd again takes the upper hand: the men are invited to remember the dead at a meal organised in the refectory (stolovaya) of Orlov’s factory.

Later, the three friends visit a pel’mennaya, where Speranskii drinks with the ‘new Russian’ Igor, a rather overweight man. Igor complains about his luxury flat with two toilets. Heavily drunk, Speranskii pokes fun at Igor and calls him a bourgeois, who would have been shot under the old regime: "буржуй стопроцентный … таких к стенке ставили … надо тебя расстрелять". Igor spontaneously agrees to Speranskii’s sentence, borrows the pistol of the police captain dining at another table, and they go outside. Here the totally drunk men arrange the 'execution': Igor instructs Speranskii how to shoot, but before this happens, he collapses in the garbage heap. The police arrive and take Igor home, in the militia-van turned taxi. 

More absurdity arises when Feldman goes to buy beer. A real womaniser, he runs after any skirt. When asked by a young woman to come home with her, he naturally obliges. She asks him to make it ‘quick and painless’ ("будьте внимательно и осторожно", "делайте быстро и безболезненно"), and he just nods, thinking clearly of an erotic encounter. Instead, the woman hands him a Staffordshire terrier that she can no longer keep in the flat because of complaints from the neighbours. Feldman takes the dog for a walk, and forgets the beer.

In another episode a prostitute borrows Speranskii's boot in order to kick the man who molested and beat her in his balls. Tragicomedy informs the scene of the visit to an old school-friend’s flat, where within five minutes a young man tries to drown himself in the bath tub, then to hang himself, and a young woman opens the gas in the kitchen. Such scenes  underline the human tragedies of the new Russia.

Absurd situations abound, however, during the 24 hours that the film covers. The three men are old school-friends who are now in their midlife crisis. Speranskii feels inferior to his successful wife Olga; Tolian is a womanizer, with at least three ex-wives; and Zema who has nothing and nobody. These now 40-year-old men built the plans for their future in the late 1980s during perestroika. Feldman acquired a professional training as doctor and has a decent income; Speranskii is a painter, supported financially by his wife; Zema has no work and no place to live, and is a social outcast, who sleeps on benches in the park. Only Orlov, who has terminal cancer, has done really well: he is a factory boss. He helps others, such as the mad Sasha whom he has set up in the boiler-house, or the paralyzed Garik in a wheelchair. While Orlov helps the poorer classmates, Zema, Speranskii and Feldman have not been able to provide support for others. Not for Ania, Feldman’s ex wife, who attempted suicide and had a miscarriage; not for Garik; not for Boria, with the suicidal Stepa and an empty flat; nor for the mad Sasha.

Suddenly, in a bout of intoxication and after Dania excluded himself from their company during the funeral, they decide to push further with their desire for clarification of the past than they have ever done before: ‘Двадцать лет назад надо было разобраться, так что откладывать больше некуда, погнали!’ (Feldman). In the present there are no longer meetings in Boria’s kitchen, when they dreamt of the future, when Sasha planned to write a book about the shelps, those invisible wood spirits that seemed to contain a meaning for their future lives. The dreams of the past have not come true for most of them. Garik is in a wheelchair, Boria has sold his possessions just to survive; Zema is a ‘bomzh’, Feldman’s job allows him to live comfortably, but he has not found permanent happiness; and Speranskii lives off his wife. They have failed to realize their dreams, united in their hunt for the invisible spirits. After twenty years they want to face the truth: how Speranskii and Dania tricked Sasha with a laughing sack, making him believe the shelps were giggling in the nightly forest: Sasha ran away and went mad. The shelps are wood spirits of the Urals: "щелп облика своего не имеет»; they are invisible, have no image. They led the boys into the belief of a meaningful life that would follow from their childhood. Instead, "у меня после детства ничего не было", says Zema. Zema only had a childhood, but no life since. However, a return to the past is impossible, yet this was the only time with some substance. The past had a future, but this future never happened. The present has neither a future, nor a past; there remains only the brutal and harsh memory of dreams not realised. Leonid Porokhnia’s script, co-written with Aleksei Muradov, is somewhat reminiscent of Viktor Slavkin’s Cerceau (1984), dealing with the generation of 40-year-olds who grew up in the 60s and try to come to terms with their lost youth of stilyagi and jazz music in the 1980s. Here, Porokhnia explores the fate of those whose youth passed in the perestroika years and who turn forty in the post-Soviet Russia, having lost their ideals of a meaningful life and their belief in the future. « Мне 40 лет, но я молодо выгляжу» has turned rather into the phrase «Мне 40 лет, но я как-то живу». Poignantly, at the end of the film Speranskii returns to his flat, number 60; as he enters the figure 6 flips upside down, the 60s become the 90s.

The film continues the concern with disability featured in Muradov’s debut film, Zmei (The Kite). There is the invalid Garik, the psychically sick Sasha, the crippled Ryzhii; there are men in wheelchairs who roam around in the hospital corridors; there is the school for deaf and mute children, and the deaf-mute Sasha. Moreover, there are unhealthily overweight people in the eatery, and of course the innumerable alcoholics. People are not only emotionally, but also physically crippled. Dania's lung cancer is a further indication of an unhealthy society, but also an unsafe environment: images of areas that resemble ‘zones’ are frequent, as are pylons and an apparently polluted landscape.


Aleksei Muradov: The Truth about Shelps (Pravda o shchelpakh) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004

31/01/04