Issue 27 (2010)

Nikolai Dostal’: Petia on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvo nebesnoe, 2009)

reviewed by David Gillespie © 2010

petiaThe film is set in the northern town of Kandalaksha, Murmansk region, in March 1953, and covers the period immediately before and following the death of Stalin. Petia Makarov (Pavlov, his first film role) is a mentally retarded young man who imagines himself as a traffic policeman, maintaining order on the icy roads and regularly checking the roadworthiness of vehicles, even to the ire of the internal security troops who guard the nearby corrective labor facility. The locals indulge Petia his fantasy, and the police chief even gives him a wooden gun to fit in his otherwise empty holster in order to bolster his authority. When two criminals escape from the camp, the guards give chase and Petia, following his social conscience, joins them. One of the escapees is easily caught hiding in the attic of a local house, but the other succeeds in making his way out of town into the forest on snow skis. In the confusion of snow and trees Petia is mistaken for Brykin, the escaped convict, and shot dead. His body is brought back to Kandalaksha, to be met by his grieving mother.

petiaWinner of the Saint George Prize at the 31st Moscow Film Festival in June 2009, Dostal’’s film is nevertheless uninvolving on the level of plot and character. This is a film that is uncertain of its own tone, containing elements of comedy and satire on the one hand, and social honesty on the other. The reason the convicts have managed to escape is because the local townspeople have been stealing the barbed wire from the fence surrounding their camp. The film also purports to say something about history, and with its temporal setting, and the hint of amnesties for criminals, it has echoes of Aleksandr Proshkin’s The Cold Summer of 1953 (Kholodnoe leto 1953-ego, 1988). Dostal’, the director of the TV series Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2004), is no stranger to the historical injustices of Stalinism, and the writer Kuraev made his name with novels about the ‘blank spots’ of Soviet history in the glasnost’ period. Mikhail Kuraev’s novella on which the film is based appeared in the journal Znamia in 1991.

petiaHere, however, both director and writer are content to provide whimsical snapshots of characters rather than provide detailed psychological portraits, and motivation for most of the film’s set-pieces remains lacking. What the director excels at, though, is the depiction of the humdrum, daily lives of the people in this snowbound town, the “free” Nivagesstroi workers, hospital staff and drivers living lives just as restricted as the convicts whose camp is only a stone’s throw away. When Petia’s mother breaks down on hearing the news of Stalin’s death, we are in no doubt that this was the genuine emotion felt by the majority of her compatriots. Not so with the convicts, however, who cannot contain their mirth. Life here is austere and hard, with boiled potatoes the staple diet, excitement and distraction fleetingly gained in illicit sex in the linen cupboard of a hospital, and freely flowing vodka. The whole town is lifted, at least temporarily, by the visit of the great actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who is about to be elected as their representative to the Supreme Soviet.

petiaApart from the one-dimensional Petia, the only other character allowed to develop even minimally is Colonel Bogoslavskii (Madianov), the security chief who suspects everyone of something, and who makes no secret of his anti-Semitism with regard to the Jewish doctor Ioffe (Red’ko). The Jews, he says, attract their own “cloud” of suspicion through their own activities, be they “Cosmopolitanism” on the one hand or “Zionism” on the other. Though initially intimidating with his coarse language, piercing blue eyes and bullying attitude, he is reduced to a figure of fun as he is at first cuckolded, then last seen in his underwear pursuing the escaped convicts in the snow. Ioffe himself remains expressionless throughout, even after sex, but whether this is through sheer boredom or existential resignation is not made clear. The engineer Konovalov (Korshunov) is treated as a hero by the local population and his own workforce, but apart from his ability to blow holes in underground mines his virtues remain hidden.

petiaThe film is, of course, based on a huge contrivance: it is hard to believe that all the adults (with the exception of Bogoslavskii) in a far-flung backwater, existing in very tough conditions, would treat the retarded Petia with such sympathy and indulgence, with no hint of anything darker. At least the local children are candid and do not hide their mockery. The major problem with the film, however, is that it does not tell us anything new about the period, and its ambitions remain unrealized. There is no reference in the film to the hero’s spiritual journey alluded to in its title, and the Ivan-the-fool motif remains undeveloped. Petia may be the village idiot, and his fate does show up the random callousness of the regime where guards are ready to shoot without warning. The prison camp and the hydro-electric dam under construction remain jarring but potent symbols of the paradoxes of the time, and more could have been made of their juxtaposition. It is no surprise that Bogoslavskii comes out as more of a fool than Petia as the “organs” have come in for their fair share of satire and contempt since the fall of the Soviet Union, though ex-President (and perhaps future re-elected President) Vladimir Putin may not be amused by the less than favorable portrayal of his revered security apparatus.

David Gillespie
University of Bath

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Works Cited

Kuraev, Mikhail, ‘Petia po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe’, Znamia (1991: 2), 9-58.

Petia on the Way to Heaven, Russia, 2009
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Nikolai Dostal’
Scriptwriter: Mikhail Kuraev (based on his own novella)
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Director: Alim Matveichuk
Cast: Egor Pavlov, Roman Madianov, Aleksandr Korshunov, Svetlana Timofeeva-Letunovskaia, Evgenii Red’ko
Producer: Fedor Popov
Production: Stella Studio

Nikolai Dostal’: Petia on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvo nebesnoe, 2009)

reviewed by David Gillespie © 2010

Updated: 10 Jan 10