Issue 23 (2009)

Petr Todorovskii: Riorita (2008)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2009

The cool of May,
Long shadows in the gardens,
The fuzz of the poplar, cries of the cranes,
Walls of lilac clusters,
There was all that; it's no more.
You and your shoulder by me.
You, only you.

Petr Todorovskii's latest film, Riorita, contributes yet another dark chapter to the history of the Great Patriotic War as recently depicted on the Russian screen. This tale traces the fate of the Pichugovs, a salt-of-the-earth peasant family of father and three sons during the last days of the war. Three of the four are killed, undone not by the German enemy, but by the enemy within, the former Kolyma guard Barkhatov, the film's Mephistopheles.

Riorita opens at night; it is pouring rain, and the new recruits stand unprotected for the roll call. There we meet the Pichugovs: Aleksandr Gavrilovich and his sons Arsenty, Pavel, and Sergei—as well as the ingratiating Barkhatov. The picture is in color, but most of the time it may as well be in black and white, so somber are its chromatics. The trees tower above the puny men. Sunlight rarely shines upon them. Melancholy music, including the song “Riorita” occasionally punctuates the gloom.

Barkhatov carefully weaves his webs to lure the Pichugovs. The first to fall prey to Barkhatov's wiles is an easy target, Arsentii, the handsome, self-centered eldest son. The Pichugovs are suspect, having spent most of the war in the “relative safety” of occupied territory. Life didn't change for them, father Aleksandr Gavrilovich explains to the ever-inquisitive Barkhatov. They worked the fields as they always had and gave the grain to their starosta. “ Why didn't you join the partisans?”, asks Barkhatov, feigning friendly interest. It seems that the two younger sons, Pasha and Serezha, had wanted to join, but Arsentii set out after them to drag them back, presumably with his father's approval. Arsentii is completely lacking in patriotism; he has no desire to defend either otechestvo or rodina. He is incensed that the soldiers who pressed them into service gave them only five minutes to collect their things, no time for a “proper” goodbye with his beauteous younger wife Kalia, whom he loves to distraction. Arsentii monotonously whines that Kalia will leave him because they have no children. While out on a work detail, Barkhatov whispers to Arsentii that if he were wounded, he would be sent home. Barkhatov, soft and smooth as the velvet of his name, first offers to shoot Arsentii before adding, “Or you can do it yourself.” In their first encounter with the Germans (heard but not seen), Arsentii jumps into a trench, shoots himself in the hand, and flees to the rear. The nurse who is tending him quickly realizes what he has done and runs to fetch the doctor. Arsentii melts into the forest, but not for long. Captured, he is brought before a military tribunal; cowering, begging for his life, crying out for Kalia, he is executed by firing squad as his father and brothers watch, together with the rest of their company. Tears in his eyes, a sorrowful Barkhatov grasps Aleksandr Gavrilovich's hand.

Next to go is the old man, whom Barkhatov has already been preparing with his sly insinuations Now the Pichugovs really have a problem, Barkhatov sympathetically informs Aleksandr Gavrilovich. Not only were they suspect for having remained in occupied territory for three years without any sign of resistance, they have a traitor in the family. Barkhatov also reminds Aleksandr Gavrilovich of his “sin” in putting up a German commandant in their home for a night and treating him well. (“What would you have done?” asks the old man.—“I would have strangled him and dumped the body in the woods.”—“And the children?”—“The children, too.”) Barkhatov tells Aleksandr Gavrilovich that this “interrogation” is intended to help him prepare smooth answers for SMERSH. It's good practice. Barkhatov soon has a better idea to help Aleksandr Gavrilovich protect himself and his two remaining sons. Their major is looking for “tongues,” German soldiers, preferably officers, who might be captured and inform on German plans. Capturing one would bring the old man a medal for sure, along with a measure of protection (although Aleksandr Gavrilovich glumly counters that their kolkhoz chairman had a medal and was still arrested). Nevertheless, the spunky elder steals into the neutral zone at night to capture a German but is shot in the back when the Germans surprise him.

In the meantime, Barkhatov is in the major's tent, lamenting that Aleksandr Gavrilovich is missing and has probably gone over to the other side. “He said this was his opportunity to see another country,” mourns Barkhatov. Just as the distraught major is telephoning his superior to inform him of yet another Pichugov desertion, sons Pasha and Serezha appear, dragging with them a German corporal. When their father disappeared, Pasha recalled that he had seen Barkhatov whispering in the old man's ear and he and Serezha rush off after him, just in time to see him killed. The relieved major promises them the medals their father had hoped to earn. Barkhatov denies planting the idea, protesting to Pasha that he had tried to talk Aleksandr Gavrilovich out of it.

Arsentii and his father were the easiest of targets, the former a love-besotted fool, the latter the soul of goodness. Barkhatov's final victim is the middle brother Serezha, a rough and friendly peasant lad who requires special handling. Serezha and Barkhatov have become friends, a friendship cemented when Serezha takes a beautiful pocket watch from the corpse of a Soviet soldier. He spends his free time admiring the watch and listening to the tune it plays when opened. Barkhatov wants that watch with a passion that is terrifying; he collects the watches of dead men, just as he collects their souls. Barkhatov frantically attempts to barter for the watch as Serezha steadfastly refuses because he sees the watch as a talisman that will protect him and his brothers, clinging to this notion despite everything to the contrary. Serezha obviously enjoys Barkhatov's increasing desperation, culminating in a card game for the watch that Serezha wins. Barkhatov's options have run out. As the Red Army enters the suburbs of Berlin, Barkhatov encourages Serezha to drink until he passes out, then murders him. At last the watch is his. Three Pichugovs down.

Anatolii Dem'ianovich Barkhatov must be counted among the most finely drawn and terrifying villains in Russian fiction. He preys on weakness and fear, and instinctively understands how to play the love-struck Arsentii and the devoted pater familias Aleksandr Gavrilovich. But he is not entirely at ease. His twitchy smiles and fluttering glances betray his nervousness; his outbursts of self-righteous anger betray his insecurities. He reveals an unsettling bit of himself three times, each time through a story connected to his work in the camps. The first story is that of the “love of his life,” Eleonora, whom he has kidnapped from the camp to take as his mistress. She runs away from him, but he recaptures her. Serezha is anxious to know what happened next; Barkhatov claims he didn't kill her, forcing the viewer to imagine what else he might have done. The second, most lengthy story, lovingly and carefully recounted, involves an imprisoned mathematician and his wife. Barkhatov claims to have arranged a meeting between the two, as the risk of his own life, not only to obtain his favorite watch, but also out of sympathy for the wretched woman, who has had to sleep her way across Russia to Kolyma. He tears up as he tells the tale. Serezha can't get enough of the camp stories; he's intrigued by this fantastical world populated with real enemies of the people. The third story has just begun, when Serezha interrupts him, catching Barkhatov in a contradiction. Was the prisoner alive or dead when Barkhatov finished his tour of duty in the camps and left Kolyma? Barkhatov flies into a rage: “You sat out the war…while Leningraders were getting 150 grams a day!” Later, the increasingly mischievous (and foolish) Serezha twits him about why he signed on for an extended tour of duty at the camps. “Someone needed to guard the enemies of the people,” Barkhatov growls, clearly wounded that his heroism and self-sacrifice are not obvious to this uncouth rube.

The only Pichugov immune to Barkhatov's blandishments is the youngest son, Pasha. Unlike his father and brothers, the pragmatic Pasha has adjusted easily to army life, finding a pretty nurse for a lover on their first day in camp. He orders his father to stop crying after Arsentii's death: “It was his own fault.” He sees through Barkhatov, especially after his father's death, and warns Serezha away from him, to no avail.

Good and evil have their climactic confrontation at film's end. The unit is taking a town on the outskirts of Berlin. Pasha is with the other men, enthusiastically throwing grenades, while Serezha, at Barkhatov's urging, is drinking himself into oblivion. (They are ‘guarding' a barn full of German civilians.) Barkhatov uses the fact that Serezha is insensate to select an attractive German woman from the bunch to rape. Finished, he begins to walk slowly away from Serezha. He hesitates, turns around, and shouts angrily to the sleeping boy, “Falling asleep?! That's treason!”, and hesitates one final time before shooting Serezha in the temple. This is a first; others have done his killing for him. In breaking with his own methods, Barkhatov has made a fatal error. There is a witness: the German woman he raped; she pantomimes what happened to Pasha, just arrived on the scene. Pasha understands immediately and seizes the watch from Barkhatov. Together with the major, Pasha bashes Barkhatov's head in. The German woman faints. The rhythmic thud, thud, thud of Barkhatov's head against the wall brings this tragic tale to its close. Would that the picture had ended here, with a dramatic display of the corrosive power of evil.

But it does not. Riorita's denouement is startling, especially given the picture's relentless dreariness. Fast forward to a beautiful sunny day on the kolkhoz. Pasha sits barefoot on his front porch with his dog, his wife (the nurse), and their two little children, looking self-satisfied indeed. Fast forward to another sunny day, many years later. Pasha and three strong, blonde young men are scything a golden field of wheat. This prosaic and predictable pair of scenes undercuts what had been an uncompromising account of evil and its aftermath. It does not appear to be ironic. Russia continues, with her simple folk mowing fields of gold.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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Riorita, Russia, 2008
Color, 98 min.
Director: Petr Todorovskii
Producer: Mira Todorovskaia
Screenplay: Petr Todorovskii
Cinematography: Iurii Shaigardanov
Design: Aleksandr Chertovich
Sound: Evgenii Pozdniakov
Music: Petr Todorovskii
Cast: Konstantin Vorob’ev, Ivan Krivoruchko, Dmitrii Ul’ianov, Anatolii Gushchin, Iakov Samshin, Aleksei Gorbunov
Production: Mirabel, with the support of the State Agency for Culture and Cinema

Petr Todorovskii: Riorita (2008)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09