Issue 23 (2009)

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: The Game (Igra, 2008)

reviewed by Jasmijn Van Gorp © 2009

Thirteen years after the release of Peculiarities of National Hunting (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995) Rogozhkin has written and directed sequel #4, The Game. Peculiarities of National Soccer (Igra. Osobennosti natsional'nogo futbola). This “sports comedy” was produced by Aleksei Uchitel''s Rock Company and commissioned by the Federal Soccer Association, the television station Channel One and the national insurance company Rosgosstrakh. It is obvious that the first's intention is to promote soccer and, by extension, to strengthen the ties of the nation. Even more than cinema, soccer has the ability to unite the nation. If the national team wins, the nation wins. Making a film about soccer, then, could have a double nationalizing potential. The opposite is also true, especially if the film lacks a good story and, more importantly, if the film is too obviously involved with the national. Following Billig (1995), it can be argued that waving the flag consciously with fervent passion will be less effective than a flag hanging on a public building. Ideology (only) works when it remains unnoticed, as The Game demonstrates.

The film focuses on the entourage of the Russian national soccer team, preparing for the finals of the FIFA World Cup in Moscow in 2018. The administrator, Mikhail Zvonov (note the word pun), is more occupied with the embezzlement of funds than with the team's finances. His assistant Nikolai discovers a recipe for a special cocktail of vodka and beer to foretell the outcome of a soccer game with an 80 percent certainty. Mikhail takes possession of the recipe and pays a visit to the former physiotherapist and notorious alcoholic, Ernst. Mikhail pours him beer and vodka. It works: Ernst prophesies the score of the finals will be 3-4 in the penalties. Mikhail would like to wager money on the game and approaches Azis, a soccer guru, to borrow several million. Azis is eager to lend him the money, as he tells him the score. Azis, in turn, visits a bookmaker's office. However, during the finals Mikhail notices that he has switched the scores: Russia will win 4 to 3. The film reaches its climax when the Russians win the World Cup and the two bad guys pass out and are taken to the hospital.

This predictable story is neither saved by a beautiful cinematography, nor by comic relief. Visually, the film has more in common with a television show than with cinema due to the fast motion shots and the distorted subjective camera shots, meant to visualize flashbacks. All of this is accompanied by a house/techno music score to whip up the passions for soccer. The film is meant to be a comedy, but Russian critics agree the humor is weak, making it a “dull” film (e.g., Barabash in Nezavisimaia gazeta ). In Peculiarities of National Hunting , Peculiarities of National Fishing (Osobennosti natsional'noi rybalki, 1998) and Peculiarities of National Hunting in Winter (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty v zimnii period, 2000), the humor exists in the Russians' incompetence at hunting or fishing, whereas this element is left out in The Game. This time, the Russians do what the title suggests: they play soccer. What is more, they play very well. In this way, the humorous effect of the film is nullified and has to be saved by the other successful element of the previous ‘peculiar' films: Aleksei Buldakov, the actor who became tremendously popular thanks to his performance in the first ‘peculiar'. As in all the other ‘peculiar' films, Buldakov plays an alcoholic (i.e., the physiotherapist) who speaks in short monologues. He acts with the same facial expressions, the same intonation and is consistently shown from the same camera angles. Next to Buldakov's performance, the film's best attempt at humor comes from Zvonov's inability to spell properly. 

Like its predecessors, the film is set up around one “national” element: vodka. This time, vodka does not prevent the ingroup, the Russians, from performing. On the contrary: vodka is used to patch up players injured during the games. Vodka is shown as a magic potion, only meant for Russians. When a Kenyan player mistakes a plastic vodka bottle for a bottle of water, he starts dancing and ultimately has to be carried off the field. Unlike the first “peculiar” film, vodka is not used to build a bridge between nations. In Peculiarities of National Hunting, the Finn Raimo succeeds in communicating with Kuz'mich thanks to vodka. In The Game vodka blows up every bridge.

This contrastive self-identification is intensified by the film's indulgence in stereotypes, when it comes to the depiction of the opponents. The Kenyan fans wear straw skirts and other tribal attributes. The Uruguyan supporters, wearing folkloristic clothes, sing the Cuban song “Guantanamera,” play the guitar and shake maracas. Interestingly, in the finals, the opposing team's players are de-nationalized. They wear the national jersey of Poland (white with red letters), though the names of the players range from Dollerup over Bellak to Hobbes. When the camera shows the scoreboard, only “-ania” can be seen. The players themselves are Caucasians and blacks. It is obvious they belong to a Western European (British, French, Dutch) or North American team. After the Russian team has beaten African and South American opponents in the qualification matches, the true challenge is a Western one. The stereotyping of the former and the de-nationalizing of the latter, therefore, point to the ideological significance of the film: it will show that Russia is able to compete with Western powers. Better yet: the day will come when Russia is (once again) one of the leading nations of the world.

The characteristics of the outgroup are further explored in another scene. The masseur has some magic rituals to guarantee good results for the game. For instance, as preparation for the quarter finals, he spits twice on the soccer shoes of the Russian team's striker to ensure he will also score twice. Masha, a student who is writing a dissertation on soccer jargon, witnesses the ritual and asks him whether the shoes belong to the opponents of the quarter finals, “the Muslims.” He answers: “No, they belong to us. To our Sasha.” By using the deictic word “our” (nashi), the Russian soccer team is set as the object of identification and, reading between the lines, Muslims are positioned as “them,” the outgroup. In the same vein, it is significant that the soccer guru, who symbolizes the Abramoviches of this world, and is one of the bad guys in the film, is a Muslim.

Another implicit national element is the presence of two young boys in the film. These boys want to show their talents to the coach, and succeed. They symbolize Russia's future, the future star players. One of the boys is autistic, a narrative element to convey the message that every talent gets a fair chance at becoming a member of the national team. During the finals, the boy ultimately breaks his silence and starts cheering the goalkeeper. Maslova suggests that the presence of the boy can also be read as a form of self-irony added by Rogozhkin (yet presented in a politically incorrect form): you should believe in Russian soccer the same way mentally handicapped people do.

Along the same lines, the film is packed with explicit national elements, all de-ethnicised, focusing on rossiiskii and not on russkii. The Russian supporters do not play the balalaika, they just wave the flag. The Russian flag is omnipresent in the film, even on the telephone booths. “Russia” is everywhere, as is the slogan “Russia, forward!”. The film starts with the slogan “For everyone who believes in Russian soccer.” Instinctively, I think this implies that the film is aimed at a male audience. This belief is intensified when Nikolai tells an irrelevant story about his former girlfriend who had to leave the national volleyball team since her breasts always touched the net when blocking.

Ordered by the Federal Soccer Association, which is not short of money, the film shows the well-equipped Association: luxury apartments, tour buses, golf cars and perfect soccer fields. As a matter of fact, the film as a whole foretells a bright future for Russian soccer. Russia presently has the largest number of millionaires in the world and a stunning amount of money is being invested in soccer. Russian soccer has become a booming business and is still on the rise. When watching The Game, it comes as no surprise that the Russian national team reached the quarter finals of the European Championship in June 2008. One of the few interesting elements of this film, therefore, is its successful portrayal of the exorbitant amounts of money involved in soccer.

Although the film was more or less successful (it earned $340,102 at the box office), it is unlikely that it contributed to a national feeling. When the audience's attention is put to the test due to a weak story, lack of humor and cheap special effects, you can wave a million flags, “Russia, forward!” can be chanted a hundred times, a film will never have the same effect as blockbusters with high production values and implicit national cues. Rogozhkin ought to leave the ‘peculiar' comedy for what it is and concentrate on that other genre of which he is a master, the war film.

Jasmijn Van Gorp
University of Antwerp

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Works cited

Barabash, E. “Ot oligofrena – s liubov'iu. Novyi fil'm Aleksandra Rogozhkina ‘Igra' vykhodit v prokat,” Nezavisimaia gazeta 29 May 2008

Billig, M. Banal Nationalism . London: Sage, 1995

Maslova, L. “Myachi sbyvayutsya. Budushchee rossiiskogo futbola v fil'me ‘Igra'”. Kommersant 31 May 2008

The Game, Russia, 2008
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Script: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cinematography: Aleksandr Smirnov
Cast: Aleksei Buldakov, Liubov’ L’vova, Iurii Stepanov, Daniil Strakhov, Artem Volobuev
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel’
Production Company: Rock Company, with support of the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography and commissioned by Channel One, the Federal Soccer Association, Rosgosstrakh

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: The Game (Igra, 2008)

reviewed by Jasmijn Van Gorp © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09