New Films 






Nikolai Solovtsov, The Mother-Wolf of Ves'egonsk [Ves'egonskaia volchitsa] (2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2005


            Nikolai Solovtsov’s Mother Wolf of Ves'egonsk belongs to the genre of animal melodrama, in which the major tension and the possibility of resolving the central conflict depends on the animal and human protagonists’ ability to find a common language.  The genre goes back to 19th century theatrical melodrama and romantic prose.  It found its way into 20th-century cinema and television, and still flourishes in the 21st century as one of the prime forms of family and children’s entertainment.  Solovtsov and his renowned co-author Eduard Volodarskii based their screenplay on Boris Vorob'ev’s novella. 

            The Mother Wolf of Ves'egonsk tells the story of a wolf hunter, Egor Biriukov (Oleg Fomin), and a female wolf who rules the woods surrounding Egor’s village.  In the film’s pantheistic universe, the forest serves both as setting and character.  On the one hand, the forest feeds Egor and the animals that the protagonist hunts.  On the other hand, the forest, like the ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, becomes the spiritual interlocutor for both human and animal characters.  They come out of the forest and eventually return to disappear into its primordial thicket.  In the course of the film, the viewer learns the story of Egor’s great grandfather, Timofei.  Also a wolf hunter, he domesticated a wolf, but eventually the wolf took Timofei back into his world; he and his lupine friend abandoned the village and disappeared into the forest.  Similarly, Egor’s life changes when he runs into a mother wolf and steals her cubs.  In response, the mother finds Egor and invades the world of his community, family, and self; she starts slaying domestic animals and harassing the locals.


What begins as a story of a mother’s revenge for the death of her cubs becomes a life-long relationship between the hunter and his former prey.  Initially Egor decides to hunt down the mother of the cubs and kill her.  When he entraps the beast and shoots her at point blank, however, the wolf miraculously survives.  Egor realizes that it is physically impossible to kill this bestial incarnation of the maternal spirit.  Being a man of nature himself, Egor understands that there is a limit to his ability to control the creatures of the forest and decides to keep the wolf in captivity next to his house since he cannot kill or control her otherwise.  Once the wolf starts living in Egor’s household, the hunter is gradually transformed from captor into the captive of the wolf’s will and forest’s spirit.  Eventually, Egor distances himself from his human community and ends up spending most of his time with his lupine partner.  Insights into the world of nature replace Egor’s hunting instincts and he admits that he won’t be able to hunt any more because he now understands too well the world of his victims. 

Solovtsov’s picture offers an archetypal werewolf story with a twist.  If beast bites human and the human turns into a monster in the werewolf narrative, in Solovtsov’s film, when the wolf bites the protagonist, he turns into a worshipper of nature’s organic unity; he returns to an age of innocence—a utopian time when people lived in harmony with the world of nature.  Nature, the film implies, possesses metaphysical meaning comprehensible to animals and inaccessible to humans existing in the world of civilization.  These narrative and philosophical platitudes do not scar the viewer by their banality thanks to the excellent work of the director of photography Elizbar Karavaev, whose shots of forests and animals would satisfy the most demanding viewers of the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

  While the animal melodrama is an unusual film form for post-Soviet cinema because the demand for this product has been satisfied mostly by Free Willy-style Western products, films with animal actors were an important Soviet genre produced primarily by the Central Studio of Popular Science and Instructional Cinema (Tsentrnauchfil'm).  Solovtsov worked for many years at this Soviet-era documentary film studio created to make scientific knowledge accessible to the broad masses.   His teacher, Aleksandr Zguridi, established the genres of Soviet popular science films and melodramas about animals working together with people, films based on the material of living nature” (fil'my na materiale zhivoi prirody[i]).  This latter genre provided an important variation on the Soviet reeducation narrative.  In the films about animals, reeducation was presented as part of the war on nature: evolutionary theory unfolded in front of viewers in an accelerated version.  In the course of the film an animal protagonist was transformed from a spontaneous creature of nature into a conscious helper of the human protagonist.  In Vladimir Shneiderov’s famous Dzhulbars (1936), titled after the canine protagonist, the dog helps the border guard catch class enemies and foreign spies.  In the adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang (Zguridi, 1946), the dog’s mind becomes the testing ground for two competing models of education: a humanist one and one based on capitalist profiteering.  The humanist one, obviously akin to Soviet values, wins in the course of the film. 

Solovtsov’s film not so much revives the Soviet animal melodrama as modifies it in the spirit of “village prose,” which idealizes nature, questioning the power of human reason and the value of civilization in destroying the organic links between nature and the traditional peasant community.  In the film, technology always falls short in the face of nature.  When the locals hire hunters from the city to get rid of the wolves, the city dwellers fail miserably despite their superior equipment.  Similarly, when the locals themselves decide to run the war on the forest dwellers, the film switches to a satirical visual mode reminiscent of Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Particularities of National Hunting in Autumn (1995).  The wolves outsmart the hunters while the hunters turn into anarchic clowns who, instead of killing the wolves, wake up a hibernating bear and become the bear’s potential prey.

Solovtsov’s connection with the tradition of the Soviet animal film is not only cultural and historical, but it is also industrial: he shot his film partly in the forests near the town of Uglich and partly in the former Goskino Animal Sanctuary (Zoobaza Goskino) in Petushki near Moscow.  According to the filmmaker, The Mother Wolf of Ves'egonsk was the first film shot on the premises of the sanctuary since the end of the Soviet Union.  For his project, Solovtsov bought seventeen wolf cubs and with the help of animal trainers prepared them for shooting the film.  In the best traditions of Lev Kuleshov’s workshop, three wolves were selected to play the wolf lead, while the film’s editor created a perfect celluloid body for the mother wolf out of separate shots of the three animal actors.

Some viewers will find the shots of wild animals and primordial forests appealing.  The film evokes early cinema’s combination of “the actuality” and the trick film, which created the illusion of animals acting via stop motion and elaborate editing.  Domestic audiences have also enjoyed the acting of Russia’s young and veteran male stars: Oleg Fomin and Vladimir Gostiukhin.  Their rough melodramatic masculinity provides a perfect match to the acting style of their animal partners. 

[i]  Aleksandr Zguridi.  “Tsentrnauchfil'm.”  Kino: entsiklopedicheskii slovar'.  Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1986.  478.   

Alexander Prokhorov, College of William and Mary

The Mother Wolf of Ves'egonsk, Russia, 2004

Color, 116 minutes

Director: Nikolai Solovtsov

Screenplay: Nikolai Solovtsov and Eduard Volodarskii

Cinematography: Elizbar Karavaev

Production Design: Anatolii Kachurov

Music: Evgenii Doga

Cast: Oleg Fomin, Elena Drobysheva, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Lev Durov, Lev Borisov, Irina Savina

Production: Aktual'nyi film, Roskinoprokat, supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Nikolai Solovtsov, The Mother-Wolf of Ves'egonsk [Ves'egonskaia volchitsa] (2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2005