Issue 23 (2009)

Aleksandr Atanesian: Montana (2007)

reviewed by Svetlana Dragayeva-Turovska © 2009


Crazy Russians in search of the promised land

Aleksandr Atanesian's Montana is advertised as a “criminal drama” with Oleg Taktarov, “our man in Hollywood,” as the lead. Taktarov, a world champion in mixed martial arts, who lives in LA and is called the “Russian bear,” transforms, at times unsuccessfully, into a lyrical hero. Montana is not Balabanov's Brother-2 (Brat-2, 2000), although at first glance they share certain superficial similarities.

Kolian (Kolia or Nikolai, played by Taktarov) and Vitek (or Viktor, played by Igor Mirkurbanov) grow up together in an orphanage where they dream of going to Montana and getting married to Native Americans. Time passes, and “Kolia Montana” (as he is called in the orphanage) and Vitek turn into mature gangsters. Vitek is far luckier and avoids prison twice. The first time, in 1983 Vitek runs away at Kolian's expense. The second time, in 1998, during a bank robbery, Vitek escapes, whereas Kolian is caught red-handed while he is covering a woman and her child in a skirmish. As a result, Vitek successfully legalizes his business and turns into Viktor Vasil'evich and all Kolian gains are two church cupolas on his chest indicating two prison sentences. After serving the sentence, Kolian is offered co-ownership of Vitek's company. The only condition before he signs the documents is that he must help out Vitek's American partner (Savva, played by Atanesian) on the other side of the Atlantic. Without a second thought, Kolian goes to the land of plenty to “help” commit the “suicide” of the aging wife of Savva's partner, Bill, an ex-CIA agent. Luckily for Kolian, the wife kills herself right before he appears in their pompous, Hollywood-style mansion.

Although Kolian plans to return to Moscow immediately, he chases his childhood dream of seeing Montana. And so Kolian's “extraordinary adventures of a crazy Russian in the land of capitalists” begin. He becomes a local hero by saving a boy (Johnnie, played by Nolan Gould) at the beach; falls in love with the mother of the boy, Leslie (Scarlett McAlister), an Irish immigrant and single mother; works at a Chinese bar; and discovers, yet also questions, the Bible. Kolian easily adapts to any living conditions and feels right at home no matter whether he is living in a quiet suburban area or in the crowded barracks of the Chinese bar owner. During this time, Vitek makes sure Kolian is chased all over the West coast by the two Russian mobsters. The West coast mafia is headed by Savva, a Russian Jewish immigrant. The mobsters have endless disagreements on what is good music. For the older mobster Sania (Aleksandr Rafalskii), music has to touch his soul and so the viewer has a chance to listen to a variety of Russian Chanson tunes (“criminals' songs”), like Natalie, Nostalgia or A Shot of Vodka on the Table. On the contrary, the younger immigrant Ryzhii (Jeff Doba) who is clearly much more Americanized, prefers speaking English and listening to Western music.

Savva announces, “we Russians are sentimental” and so is the film, digitally colorized to blur the image. The narrative focuses primarily on the main character, who is perceived by Americans as a crazy Russian. Nikolai is a perfect guy with a shady past. Unlike his friend, Vitek, Kolia is a “good” gangster. Although he broke the law twice, and agreed to go to the U.S. to murder, he is presented as a perfect potential father and husband. He embodies both traditional male and female roles and therefore goes against stereotypical representations of Russian men. Moreover, he is not only a hero (rescues Johnny) but also a caretaker. Nikolai repairs Leslie's car and Johnny's bicycle, teaches Johnny, buys Leslie a washing machine, cleans the house and the yard, and even cooks in an apron. He seems too good to be true for Atanesian's fictional reality, standing out as the most developed character in comparison with the other two-dimensional characters and types, like a bad gangster, a Russian Jew, an assimilated Russian immigrant, a nostalgic immigrant. Kolia's love-affair also seems implausible in this created fictional reality. Apparently Kolia and Leslie experience no trouble whatsoever speaking different languages, even when speaking on the phone. Furthermore, Nikolai is a crazy Russian for Americans but not Russian enough for Russians, as he doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and prefers bath-houses to call girls. Americans seem to still believe that Russia is a part of the Soviet Union: in a book published in 2001, the flag is still that of the USSR. The two words that are immediately available for an average American are Stolichnaya (vodka) and Gorbachev.

Montana is conventional as far as the cinematic language goes and unsatisfactory as far as the genre is concerned: it is neither drama nor action. The film lacks depth to be dramatic and does not show enough attributes of an action film, such as chases and fights. Technical errors (e.g. repeated frames) make the traditional camera work at times upsetting.

Disappointingly the viewer comes across plot devices that lack internal motivations several times. After Kolia rescues Johnny from the car sinking in the ocean and carries him in his arms, the previously empty beach is suddenly crowded with people, police, and journalists. Although superimposition is employed to indicate the passage of time, when journalists turn their cameras on, Kolia is still carrying Johnny from the water. The logic of this sequence makes sense only later on: the mafia will finally see his picture in the newspaper and know where to look for him.

Furthermore Kolia's decision to leave Leslie and Johnny and finally go to Montana seems irrational. Why would Kolia leave a single mother and her child knowing that his picture and surprisingly Leslie's address has already appeared in the newspaper? Predictably enough the Russian mafia pays Leslie a visit, therefore Kolia's heading off for Montana lacks logic and internal motivation. Again, this is simply a plot device: Kolia has to go to Montana to realize that there is nothing special about it. It was a childish dream. Montana will not bring him happiness. He realizes that happiness is in the here and now. It is the relationship between him and Leslie. This immediate revelation prompts him to call her and confess his love for her. Predictably, five minutes later, Leslie and Johnny are kidnapped.

Speaking of the American myth prevailing in post-Soviet countries, Montana can be extended to the metaphor of the U.S. itself. Russians dream and fantasize about it, but when they finally go there, they discover that there is nothing special about it. The promised land is like any other country where people are separated by class and struggle with their everyday problems.

Svetlana Dragayeva-Turovska
Ohio State University

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Montana, Russia, 2008
Color, 96 min.
Director: Aleksandr Atanesian
Script: Eduard Topol’ (“E. T. Vozmushchen”)
Camera: Mikhail Mukassei, Bruce Alan Green
Original music: Arkadii Ukupnik
Cast: Oleg Taktarov, Scarlett McAlister, Nolan Gould, Igor Mirkunbanov, Aleksandr Atanesian, Jeff Doba, Aleksandr Rafalskii
Producer: Gevorg Nersisian, Mikhail Babakhanov, Armen Manasarian
Production: Paradiz, Stop Kadr, Pantera Productions (USA)
Website: Montanathefilm

Aleksandr Atanesian: Montana (2007)

reviewed by Svetlana Dragayeva-Turovska © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09