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Fedor Popov, Caucasian Roulette [Kavkazskaia ruletka] (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2005

 

“Ever heard of Caucasian roulette?  In the Caucasian way―it’s reversed.  The barrel is full, just one bullet is missing.”  So Anna (Tat'iana Mshcherkina), a young Russian beauty turned sniper by profession, informs her fellow passenger Maria (Nina Usatova) while they are onboard a freight train out of Chechnya as stowaways.  Both are mothers and both are fighting desperately for the lives of their respective sons.  Their struggle, however, is not predicated on a mutual acknowledgement of maternal solidarity and it does not involve a journey, at least not in the cinematic sense of the term.  Rather, Anna and Maria find themselves squarely on opposite sides of a drawn-out duel with the highest stakes imaginable.  Maria’s son, a conscript who nonetheless eagerly served to defend his people, has been taken hostage by Chechen forces.  Her only hope is to find a way to negotiate his release with Aslan, the warlord leader of a Chechen gang.  Anna, in turn, is Aslan’s lover, who is also the father of her child.  Having grown up in an orphanage, Anna has been availing her sniper skills to the Caucasian “bandits, not people,” as Maria clarifies for her.  With her maternal instincts resurrected, Anna is on the run because she realizes her son is in danger of also becoming a bloodthirsty monster, torturing and maiming for the basest reasons.  Now she is hunted by both the OMON troops and her former rebel outfit.  Maria has been looking for Anna and her child as well, because she intends to make Aslan the offer of a son for a son.  This complicated scenario provides the backdrop to the showdown between the two mothers in an irreconcilable conflict that takes place entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a railway carriage, with the terse dialogue and intense stares periodically interrupted by the antics of Kolya (Anatolii Goriachev), the dimwitted train conductor.    

Through the course of film, Anna remains a sniper just as Maria remains a mother.  But Anna is a sniper and a mother!  So we’re dealing with internal and external conflict.  Despite such a convoluted plot construction (pointing to an inevitably climactic solution) and a bombastic title (firmly establishing its spiritual connection to one of the most haunting portrayals of the physical and mental devastations effected by war, namely the Russian roulette scenes of Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter), Fedor Popov’s debut directing feature Caucasian Roulette is a timid affair.  As befits its schematic structure, the film is punctuated with sloganeering assertions, such as the graffiti that ominously reads “welcome to hell!” during the opening credit sequence, but in this case “hell” is merely a train ride to Vladikavkaz.  The brutality and devastation of the war are elsewhere, so that the film deftly manages to reduce and compartmentalize the magnitude and the enormous ramifications of the Chechen conflict into an existential quarrel between two Russian women, one old and one young.

Of course, the thematic yoking of war with motherhood has a significant cinematic pedigree in Soviet cinema and it seems that the war in Chechnya easily extends itself to representations within such a gendered maternal framework as well, namely the terror of “black widows,” the “Soldiers’ Mothers” movement, or, more recently, the atrocities of Beslan.  This film goes even further to render the conflict entirely as a matter of gender since it manages to marginalize the role of men to such an extent that they are solely represented by one, perhaps already archetypal figure of contemporary Russia, the train conductor, whose work environment consists of porn movies, Penthouse posters, and old Brezhnev pictures.  His jovial and loquacious simplemindedness, as he wheels and deals his way around any obstacles with only his own immediate benefits and gratification in mind, stands in stark contrast to the solemn battle of the two mothers and emphasizes how meaningless his contributions are within a larger context.

 

The film’s theatrical limitations of a single location rely on the intensity of the protagonists’ performances to alleviate any monotony.  Nina Usatova, nominated for a Nika Award for her role here, plays the old stoic mother, whose grief and hardship are visible in each of her glances.  Anna, by contrast, offers a one-dimensional expression of sulky petulance, but her visual presence on screen prompted a Variety reviewer to dub her a “Michelle Pfeiffer look-alike.”  Anna epitomizes another emerging figure, the female sniper, who sells her services without remorse or allegiance (Andrei Konchalovskii’s House of Fools from the same year featured a Lithuanian female sniper caught in the insanity of war-ravaged Chechnya).  As a mythical character, this makes for some interesting material.  The stuff of battleground lore, ranging from World War II partisans to the civil wars of Yugoslavia, the figure of the female sniper is often used to unhinge the regular dynamics of a war movie in the service of a complexity that heralds its allegorical dimension beyond the specificity of a particular war in order to pose a larger moral question.  Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) derived much of its power by moving inexorably toward this revelation, whereas in Caucasian Roulette Meshcherkina bears more of a resemblance to Maryam d’Abo as a KGB sniper in the James Bond world of The Living Daylights (dir. John Glen, 1987).  Here, the orphan Anna has been adrift but now learns to escape from the confines of a self-imposed white slavery.

The dilemma that the film poses around the question of maternity is that Anna has become the moral equivalent of one of the much-feared “brides  of Allah” or shahidki―that scourge which fundamentally threatens a Russian sense of inviolate integrity and which erupted so eerily in the convergence of harmless entertainment with actual war in Nordost the same year this film was released.  What Anna ultimately needs is a higher purpose for her maternal instincts and she must make a conscious decision in favor of embracing this state of mind.  For this project Maria serves as an involuntary semaphore, as it were, to speak within the metaphoric registers of the film.  Two powerful image sequences serve as bookends to the narrative as a way to indicate this purpose.  The first offers a beautiful landscape sequence of the Caucasian mountains devoid of any people.  The second involves a bizarre dialectical montage of the face of the avenging elder mother, behind whom a locomotive is slowly being turned around to find its proper rails among the trackage.  The close-up of the mother’s face is fused with the mechanical destiny of the train as the engine for change.  In turbulent times, the anachronistic image asserts, strength is derived from a return to motherhood as a natural force that can thus be engineered to find its destination.  Such a powerful force, the film concludes, exists and is once again available for appropriation: it’s there for the taking, but it must be provided with a direction towards which its sons can be guided together.     

Daniel H. Wild, University of Pittsburgh


Caucasian Roulette, Russia, 2002

Color, 83 minutes

Director: Fedor Popov.

Screenplay: Viktor Merezhko, co-written by Alla Krinitsyna

Cinematography: Lomer Akhvlediani

Editor: Natalya Kucherenko

Music: Andrei Golovin, The “New Opera” Moscow Theatre Orchestra

Production Design: Sergei Filenko and Olga Survillo

Sound: Roland Kazarian and Olga Serdiukova

Cast: Nina Usatova, Tat'iana Meshcherkina, Anatolii Goriachev

Producers: Fedor Popov and Aleksandr Kotelevskii

Production: Stella Studio, with support from Mosfilm (Krug) and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation


Fedor Popov, Caucasian Roulette [Kavkazskaia ruletka] (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2005

10/07/05