Bakur Bakuradze: Shultes (Shul'tes, 2008)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2008

Life in the Dark

Shultes is a very strange film for Russia. Not because the hero's surname, used in the title, sounds perhaps German or Baltic (it certainly doesn't sound Russian). Not because the hero himself also looks German or Scandinavian, and is played by the Georgian entrepreneur Gela Chitava. And not, of course, because the film was directed by the Georgian filmmaker Bakur Bakuradze: after all, he studied in Moscow and lives there to this day; and in that context, the film has neither a direct connection to Georgian nor Russian cinematic traditions.

What makes Shultes both strange and appealing is that it appears in Russia as an utterly European work. Its quotidian themes and modest appearance remind us of the Danish “dogma” school that proved so fertile. This is not to accuse the filmmaker of copying that approach, though; quite the opposite. Simply, Bakuradze has accurately defined a subsection of modern Russia, a group made of the “Strangers” or “Outsiders” who were afforded so much attention by European art throughout the twentieth century. Due to the peculiarities of Russian society and its own development, these Outsiders appeared in our country with some delay. Even so, they now constitute a socially significant number.

With the impassive eye of an ex-documentary director, Bakuradze manages to capture a new state of mind in Russia, one caused by today's relationships between an individual and society at large. Shultes is awash with this state of consciousness, something that—until recently—would be have been most atypical for us. Bakuradze both defines and aestheticizes it.

The film begins in full flow: we are immediately presented with a lengthy close up of a young man. He remains silent for a long time and finally, slowly, says a single phrase: “I remember nothing.” His memory has been cropped, like the tail of a pedigree dog. His disinterested gaze floats over to the window, where we see an urban courtyard covered with the fading leaves of autumn. It appears as if the disinterested depression of this young man finds a correspondence in all things autumnal outside. We see more of him in the following scenes.

The surname Shultes is used both for our hero and the film as a whole. We first encounter it in miserable-looking white letters across a dark screen. This very un-Russian name is used, it seems, to underscore the uniqueness of these people in our society, obliged to exist as domestic “foreigners” within new Russia. From now until the closing credits, the name Shultes is rarely said out loud, but we do—on several occasions—hear his simple, Russian Christian name: Alesha. In fact, more often than not, it is used in an even more familiar form, as Lesha. These names are used to establish particular emphases throughout the plot; they are recorded in an almost provocative form in the rhythmic ring-tone of the hero's cell phone. With every incoming call, the ring-tone asks: “Are you Lesha or not?” With each and every application of this motif, it builds greater emotional tension, forcing the hero to identify himself, over and over.

Only towards the closing scenes, when we see a precise replication of the first frames, do we realize that everything between the film's opening and denouement has been connected in Lesha's consciousness as recollections. They constitute the very essence of his thought patterns. In their development we also notice something special. We see that Lesha is in the waiting room of a psycho-neurologist who is testing the state of Lesha's memory one year after he suffered extensive brain injuries in a car crash. This new information explains a thing or two regarding the oddities of his behavior that have surprised us thus far. It helps to elucidate the grubby little notebook that never leaves his side; he uses it to constantly double-check chores, addresses, and names, all while he is kept busy with his unique employment… as a pick-pocket. We see how accurately and level-headedly the director displays the psychology and technique of Shultes; the hero has learned very well indeed how to remove purses, keys, and cell-phones from their owners' pockets. This is all very reminiscent of Robert Bresson's film Pickpocket (1959) .

Due to this loss of memory, a line of dots is scribed across select, yet unconnected events and acts. This clarifies the intriguing brevity with which the film's events unfold: the hero's actions are locked tightly inside a traumatized consciousness. Once we have passed through a range of fleeting, sometimes shocking impressions left by this damaged life, we start questioning the author's intent to show us an illness with such nauseating attention to detail. After all, we are being forced to watch the consequences of a sick consciousness as something akin to a general, perhaps criminal state of societal indifference. Somehow we gently empathize with this man, though. We share with him the experiences not of a sick, but a suffering consciousness. This same state leads an irresolute existence in our general social lives, too, in ways of being that certainly do not constitute anything healthy.

This sterile world, unsullied by memory, hides dangers we have yet to encounter. It drags us into its ominous workings. The events that Lesha continues to undergo all take place in an unpopulated environment, a realm where it is hard to even breathe. It is a world cut through with excessively strident, at times incessant intrusions of a light that knows no half-tones. Conversely, speech in these places is barely audible: it comes through in colorless fragments of already-broken phrases.

A memory—absent or lost in the past—will no longer trouble one's conscience. Lesha lives in ways that are emotionally disconnected from the events that created him. He is devoid of any sensitivity that might halt him, teetering on the edge of some tragic felony. This lack of memory becomes a dubious form of moral self-defense against obscure and threatening surroundings. A “salvationary” ability to fence off or anticipate an ugly truth is not something he pretends to experience: it is already well-cultivated in his psyche. Shultes has been infected by a very complex virus that is transmitted within a society totally indifferent to his suffering. How is this not some Russian kind of étranger? There were, of course, our own versions in Russian art, our very own “superfluous” men. But there always remained some hope back then that even death would be easier to bear communally. In the past we managed somehow to experience loneliness together, either as the high drama of shared conflicts or in common woe. Shultes, on the other hand, has been infected by a form of existential loneliness that has never been part of Russia's traditional attitude towards others.

Bakurazde offers his viewers our (very) modern life in its plenitude of back-alleys and hidden corners. These are the kind of places best pushed out of our purview… if you can do so. There is nothing heartwarming in the scenes of Lesha visiting his brother doing his soul-destroying military service just outside the capital. He throws his brother a little cash “for some smokes,” as they say. Things are just bad at home with his mother. Seriously ill, she desperately needs medication: Lesha manages to get it for her, albeit in ways that don't require him to splash out any money. There is nothing consoling in the scenes where Lesha's forced to sit by his mother's bed, while the television rambles on in the background as the only form of contact with the world.

All forms of empathy and analyses of reality are pushed out of Shultes's consciousness by an evident, emotionless cruelty. Lesha neither weeps nor does he complain about his lot. Suffering, paralyzed in the realm of his emotions, is simply too unbearable to be permitted: it is thrown out of his subconscious, all in the name of normal life… or at least some semblance thereof. The recipe for normality, however, has long been lost. He has an incurable disease: social amnesia, resulting from the universal loss of social mileposts.

Life must be played out in the dark, as a series of bluffs between values that have long been erased, leaving no sense of direction. Shultes as a title made me think of a “cheat” (shuler), somebody messing around with the rules of the game, all for the benefit of a purely biological existence. As a TV presenter says in one of the broadcasts that are used to punctuate the film, this process resembles the lives of walruses. As they mature, they are obliged to gather in groups and “dig up the beaches in search of food.”

These TV shows, in fact, play a role all of their own in the film. They fill empty space with relatively clear associations, connecting the film's scenes with numerous sounds. These same noises take the place of any real or dynamic sphere. Consider the TV line-up that Shultes reads to his mother: “News,” “Criminal Update,” “Destined to Marry (Episode 139).” Sadly, but these rare bursts of “real” human speech seem all the more pitiful for the way they are used…

This is a pointless daily existence, a heavy burden that lacks variety or any reassuring factors. It takes shape in Lesha's selective memory, in the form of an outlandish, charred skeleton. This same existence inhabits places unfit for humans, yet cordoned off for Lesha. It is shown in scenes of dull, sadly “natural” symmetry. Shultes wanders back and forth through the kind of stairwells that we all know. Behind their identical doors, each of them hides a guy called “Vasia,” or some such thing. The kind of person who disappeared a long time ago. Not even neighbors know whose these people are. For want of some full-blooded human aspect to their existence, these spatial “fillers” somehow “flesh themselves out” into two dimensions, at least long enough for somebody to ask the rhetorical—yet wholly appropriate—question: “Are you Lesha or not?” What difference does it make, especially if we look around us with an unprejudiced view, one that shows no intention of making things pretty?

Strange though it seems, this entire project has an air of orphanhood about it, one conjured by director's unrelenting aesthetic and it is such not only from inhospitable, excessively sterile lodgings, but also from the rough-and-tumble of marketplaces. They have both been darkened by some universal indifference. These are the city's bazaars, trading places, and beer tents—the kind of places that ensnare our subway stations like the tentacles of an octopus. They suck entire crowds of people into their world, the kind of people you want to protect from all the nasty thievery that goes on in those places. You want to protect them with some universal dictate or other, a warning sign that would read: STOP! GO NO FURTHER!

Bakuradze has given us another fairly unpleasant view of Moscow, offering a kind of gutter-level perspective, observing the city's relationships driven by “trade or fiscal considerations”. These are the same mores that another debut filmmaker examined recently: Aleksei Mizgirev's Hard-Hearted (Kremen' , 2007 ). For both filmmakers, the metropolis is peopled with characters that correspond to their surroundings. In Hard-Hearted, the underworld becomes a battlefield; its victors acquire a social and civic status which is somewhat dubious in its moral aspirations. As far as Lesha Shultes is concerned, that same underworld rakes in the cash, deep below the surface, while he continues to labor away as a faceless mercenary in some grim, lawless workplace.

At the end of the day, neither skill nor string nerves will save him. He is so closed off to others, yet still able to deftly remove a purse or cell-phone from somebody's pocket. All the while he manages to maintain an impenetrable appearance. With equal skill, he can swipe the keys to expensive cars from the jackets of men who operate entire carjacking rings.

Lesha's tedious life as a thief throws him together with a tiny homeless kid called Kostia, who has been operating successfully in the same field ever since he can remember. Somewhere deep in Lesha there sounds something akin to paternal feelings. This is the only thing that prompts him to take savvy Kostia on as a partner. In the territories where our characters reside, there is no place for sentimental ideas, such as returning this boy to a proper, upright lifestyle. Everybody survives here as best they can. There is no pity for people who have lost a car: after all, from snippets of tableside conversations, we learn that thieves steal not only from the public, but from one another, too. Following Lesha through the markets and stores of Moscow, now and then catching the occasional phrase from them, we go deeper and deeper into the misery of our own everyday lives. These are the places where a lack of memory really does start looking like some kind of salvation.

All the same, the most bitter of memories continue to haunt Lesha. It seems he is not quite forgetful enough. Things like an urgent visit to his mother, accompanied by the incessant rumble of a washing machine. When her death eventually happens, it descends upon him as silence, a state marked only once by a strong, single note of music. These memories soon turn to mundane issues of the burial, to the fuss surrounding a wide choice of coffins. Consciousness complicates and darkens any chance of parting with his mother at the crematorium. Mother and son are together—face-to-face—right up to the moment when the coffin is lowered into a black hole. Shutters close above it, preserving their secrets and making us all equal.

“Want a cold beer?” —asks somebody that Shultes happens to know. Before Shultes leaves him in the changing room of some public baths, he pilfers the man's wallet. That cash will be used to bury the even colder body of his mother. He will take the corpse off to the morgue in a black hearse, buttoned down with dark fabric. The entire fabric of the film, in fact, is replete with these kinds of unexpected associations and precise types of association.

Lesha later recalls the moment when his mother's ashes are delivered to his apartment. In a long scene he unscrews the top of the urn and smells the contents. He feels the ashes with his fingers. He tries in this way to re-realize the unrealizable. He screws the top back on and washes his hands, after which he places the urn on a shelf next to some trophies and medals from past sporting achievements.

Staying with these recollections, so strangely organized in Lesha's mind, we see that he used to be an athlete, but lost the habit of daily workouts beside rows of sad-looking garages, all painted green. It was this kind of experience is sport that was so highly-valued in the criminal world after 1991. We soon see how Lesha fools his own brother, telling him that he works as a trainer, earning 20,000 all whilst hiding the more “complex” sources of his income. This new meeting brings up memories of their mother's death —probably not, it seems, because of any painful forgetfulness, but simply because he doesn't want to subject his brother to more intolerable torment.

Illness serves, much like a suit of armor, to shield Shultes from any serious intrusion by the outside world. It also hides key elements of his “business” dealings. The core of his personality remains hidden from us. Viewers' expectations of a solution to Shultes's unique destiny are not answered. Anything resembling clarification is scattered across the film in various forms of daily life. It is as if any remaining signs of an abortive past have been erased. In the same way, the details we see of a present-day life bring us no comfort: they do not coalesce as a complete movie. All of Shultes's relations with the outside world have been arranged by the director in ways that guide our attention towards a hopelessly shabby existence, one robbed of any illusions that might serve to protect it. The endless zigzagging of Lesha's reminiscences lead us to conclude that the mere need to survive today is forcing most people into an egotistical estrangement from the world. A profound hardening of their hearts.

At a time when Lesha's mother still needed drugs, her reticent yet “caring” son learned how slip tablets in a bottle cleverly positioning himself between the pharmacy shelves. This battle for the means to existence via all kinds of thievery becomes a central theme. It wipes out all evidence of decent humanity. All the same, Shultes himself will be unexpectedly obliged to encounter one human presence that demands our attention.

Having made good money with Kostia, Lesha and his sidekick then rob a European-looking woman in the metro. An appealing individual, she had been careless enough to read a French book in front of everyone. Lesha and Kostia skillfully grab her wallet when she is on the escalator. She carries her bag elegantly thrown over her shoulder, while a cell phone conversation goes on in French. As the spoils are divided, Lesha and Kostia fling her passport into a rubbish container, just like the one where Lesha had earlier taken a couple of plastic bags, full of some unneeded bits and pieces after his mother's death, such as medicine containers.

This is the plot twist that will have a significant and fateful significance for Shultes. It brings some atrophied and forbidden realms of his consciousness to the fore: emotions.

It so happens that after the robbery, Lesha goes in to see a doctor—now a friend—who had helped him survive a year ago. At the same time, a new patient is brought in, the recent victim of a brain injury. Lesha recognizes his own French “patient,” wrapped up in tubes and thrown lifelessly onto the reanimation table. Maybe the same table on which Lesha was saved? This unexpected confrontation with his own victim reawakes something: an association with his own life or some form of sympathy. He is a brilliant pickpocket, but no cruel murderer.

Together with Kostia, Lesha runs off to find the passport they dumped in the gutter, seemingly in order to identify the young girl. He fails to give the passport to the doctor right away, and instead goes off to the apartment of his victim, looking the place over with a professional eye. He is no a burglar, though, just a pickpocket. And so he only goes for a small bundle of Euros that he finds lying about.

Here, in this alien social space, he undergoes a series of unexpected sensations. In this small and cozy apartment, everything has been arranged in a Western style. Digging around in the owner's half-empty suitcase, Lesha finds—beside the money—a photograph of the woman with some man. There is also a video camera and tape. Having hooked up the digital camera to the television, he sits down on the sofa in order to watch the recording. First of all he lays out, in a typical manner, all the essential bits and pieces he needs: his notebook, a bottle of beer (taken from her fridge), a packet of cigarettes… And then he turns on the tape…

The woman's vivid, kindly face is turned to the screen. She tells somebody else, a man she adores, all about their precious, mutual feelings—about the love they have together. We become witnesses to an intimate message, a letter not designed for us. Nonetheless, it cuts right through the dense, dumb spaces of this movie—all with a single, vibrant insight into a genuinely human realm. In this empty apartment, itself now orphaned, Shultes is thrown together with a living soul. It manifests its presence at the precise moment when, perhaps, it has just departed a body.

Ending this memo to her loved one, the woman sings an English song for him. It seems as if her entire destiny both lives and sparkles in that performance, a song that blows a delicate, immaterial kiss to him. In the context of what has happened to her, the natural ease of the recording makes something stir in Lesha Shultes's soul. Something long forgotten or jettisoned out of necessity. Perhaps he recalls a gentle, warm heart, deceitfully ruined by the quality that nimble-fingered pickpockets need—his professional indifference? When Lesha himself gets home, he goes through his own family photos, taken from his mother's closest. His gaze focuses on one of them, showing Lesha with a pretty young woman. On the back it says “Olia. Birthday, 2005.”

If Lesha calms down, if only for a second, he will cross the line that has separated him from his own, long-awaited demise. He predicted as much with the psycho-neurologist, when he suggested the trauma that robbed him of his memory maybe resulted from a knife attack, not from a car crash. He could not remember particular details, locked deep the history of his illness, but he knew his destiny: Lesha had hidden all the related fears deep in his subconscious. Now he expects some gross denouement to his life, in an utterly typical street-fight between crooks. It will happen at the precise moment when he ignores the rules of the game… and gives into anything resembling an “excessively human” reaction.

Life in the dark is illumined only by an existentially determined and very ugly ending, one that is already prepared for him.

Translated by David MacFadyen

Ol'ga Surkova

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Shultes, Russia 2008
Color, 100 min.
Scriptwriter: Bakur Bakuradze, with the participation of Nail Malakhova
Director: Bakur Bakuradze
Director of Photography: Marina Gornostaeva, Nikolai Vavilov
Production Design Kirill Shuvalov
Costume Design Vladimir Kuptsov
Sound: Arsenii Troitskii
Editing: Bakur Bakuradze
Cast: Gela Chitava, Ruslan Grebenkin, Liubov’ Firsova, Cecile Plaige, Vadim Suslov
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Julia Mishkinene
Production: Film Company CTB, Company Salvador D, Limon Studio

Bakur Bakuradze: Shultes (Shul'tes, 2008)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2008

Updated: 25 Sep 08