Issue 28 (2010)

Klim Shipenko: The Unforgiven (Neproshchennye, 2009)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2010

shipenkoWithin the first ten minutes of Klim Shipenko’s debut film The Unforgiven, everything seems clear and all too familiar: criminal business, corruption, violence rising to the level of premeditated murder, the moral bankruptcy of Russian society extending from developed socialism into 21st-century banditry. The first scene shows us a young woman’s sacrifice of her own body for the sake of her lover, Vladik, who has incurred debts with a local criminal gang. After about the first quarter of the film, the specific shape of this film’s narrative becomes clearer. The story of the young woman, Alisa (the allusion to Alice in Wonderland is explicit), is only the first of some half-dozen mini-biographies which unfold over at least three-quarters of the running time of the film. We are introduced to a contract killer, the boss of a protection racket, the kept woman of an unscrupulous entrepreneur, a young Moscow yuppie, a small-time hustler turned arms dealer, and a self-taught demolitions expert. None of these characters are portrayed to elicit particular sympathy or revulsion on the part of the viewers. The central tension of the film circles around the way in which the various players in the drama come to the point at which they are ready to be recruited by Alisa for one final, particularly dangerous assignment for the sake of the very same Vladik, who has walked back into Alisa’s life after an absence of three decades.

unforgivenThese mini-biographies form a surprisingly delicate and intricate texture of narrative lines woven together to form a complicated collection of life stories. The complexity of the narrative is mirrored by the stylistic complexity of the film. The film seems to flirt with various stylistic modes of storytelling without ever veering into outright pastiche. It turns into a sort of sampler of film styles, giving us by turns criminal drama, romance, urban life, some wild west–style action, and a touch of slapstick comedy to boot. The various narrative styles seem designed, at least in part, to give the players in the final drama—five men and one woman—distinct stories and identities. This is all done with a great deal of skill and finesse. There is no clear-cut division between back-story and present-time drama. Time is curved without ever fragmenting, the past blends into the present seamlessly but without leaving the viewer completely disoriented. The stylistic variation settles down into its own dark mode for the climax, and the narrative lines come together without straining verisimilitude too much. But the authorial concept behind the stylized devices remains elusive.

unforgivenShipenko’s interest quite obviously centers on Alisa, who now, in the present-time of the film, has become the owner of a sex club and a powerful entrepreneur in her own right. In an interview with Semen Kvasha, Shipenko describes how he thought it would be cool to make the Godfather into a Godmother: “A powerful woman who deals with problems better than any man and on whom everyone depends. I decided to make it a kind of exalted woman still living out her youth, like Blanche Dubois. I like such characters, I understand them very well. A woman who still remembers her first love. I sympathize with her.”

If the prototype is indeed Blanche Dubois, then Shipenko has not quite hit the mark with Alisa. As portrayed quite competently by Tat'iana Vasil'eva, Alisa is a self-confident but far from all-powerful woman whose cynical exterior masks a heart not quite of gold, but one that has not yet lost the capacity to feel real human emotion. In a particularly touching sequence, the film dwells on Alisa’s recruitment of the innocent young Masha into her high-class prostitution ring. As Masha narrates her short life to date, Alisa hesitates as she (along with the viewers) is confronted with the ruthlessly predatory nature of her own business, which is about to lead yet another young person into the spiritual abyss. It foreshadows her role in the deaths to come at the end of the film. If anything, Shipenko seems to be groping toward a noir sensibility in the film. But Alisa is a femme fatale in the most literal, but not quite in the cinematic sense of the term. The film leaves the viewers not quite knowing what we are to make of this powerful but not overpowering figure.

unforgivenIf the character fails to dominate the film as powerfully as Alisa dominates the diegetic world of the story, this is consistent with a number of features that mark this film as a debut work. The sound and camera work is impressive but more ornamental than integral; it heightens the tension of the action but fails to fulfill its initial promise to bring the film’s form to bear on the content. As for the content, the details of the various life stories seem to work at cross-purposes: while on the one hand we are supposed to sympathize with these young people, the atmosphere of doom hangs so heavy over them that the power of the film’s conclusion seems almost eviscerated. In general, the film’s finely woven complexity works against it as intriguing details are lost in the flash and noise of the action: Who is the unseen witness to Alisa’s self-sacrifice in the opening sequence? What is the significance of the third, “fictitious” partner at the head of the ANT real estate company? What kind of “justice” is Vladik actually after, and against whom? While the art-house viewer will take pleasure in answering these questions and tying up the loose ends, the viewers in the cineplex will be left as confused as the victims at the end of the film’s action. Perhaps the most intriguing question is posed by the film’s title, which invites detective work but ultimately requires speculation. By the end of the action, we understand that Alisa herself is above all “unforgiven.” But the film’s title is explicitly plural, and as soon as we begin looking for others who need to be brought to justice, the circle quickly expands to encompass so many characters that the word becomes essentially meaningless. The Unforgiven is a worthy first film of a talented young director, a respectable commercial film that contains within itself a much better work of cinema, struggling with limited success to get out.

Gerald McCausland
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Kvasha, Semen “Kruto sdelat’ krestnogo ottsa krestnoi mamoi,” interview with Klim Shipenko,

The Unforgiven, Russia, 2009
color, 107 minutes
Director: Klim Shipenko
Script: Klim Shipenko
Cinematography: Aleksei Fedorov
Art Design: Andrei Sobol'
Cast: Tat'iana Vasil'eva, Evgenii Pronin, Konstantin Demidov, Oleg Dolin, Mikhail Babichev, Konstantin Solov'ev, Kseniia Buravskaia, Boris Khvoshnianskii, Aleksandr Demidov
Producers: Lev Karakhan, Valentina Mikhaleva
General Producer: Galina Sementsova
Production: GP Group

Klim Shipenko: The Unforgiven (Neproshchennye, 2009)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2010

Updated: 23 Mar 10