Issue 34 (2011)

Iurii Bykov: To Live (Zhit’, 2010)

reviewed by Tat’iana Moskvina-Iashchenko © 2011

Execute not pardon?

Iurii Bykov debuted at the 21st Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr in 2009 in the shorts competition with the film “The Boss” (Nachal’nik), which garnered the main prize and a monetary award of 125,000 roubles. For the young director this success opened the road to big cinema. His next film, To Live, his full-length debut, was co-produced by Aleksei Uchitel’ and made it into the main competition of Kinotavr in 2010.

bykovBoth films concern the same theme: how a man acts, who suddenly finds himself under the most ordinary circumstances in an extreme situation. This test situation is dramatic, as it forces the man to act, to reveal his character, and at the same time to bring out the spectator’s attitude towards the protagonist. Thus, the author’s position is deeply hidden, almost drowning in the ambiguity of the situation in which the characters find themselves. The protagonist of the short film starts off with self-defence and ends up with murder; the protagonists of the feature film seek safety in flight, but they have to decide who shoots whom in order to survive. It is, as it were, as in the popular catchphrase about the comma: “execute not pardon”—whether to place the comma after the word “not” or whether to place it after “execute”. A man’s life depends on this comma: to live or to die.

The filmmaker suggests conditions where the spectator himself should place the comma. The spectator, experiencing with the protagonists the peripetiae of an action film’s narrative with shooting, pursuits, and fights, has to decide whom he gives his preference: the executioner or the victim, especially as the characters change their functions several times during the course of the action.

The short film “The Boss” had a single plot twist. The domestic peace at a summer house where a young family—husband, wife and child—rests, is disturbed by two robbers. One of them is a convict, who has spent a term in prison for fight and murder, the other a strayed lad. Holding a knife to the woman’s face, they demand money. The man, an FSB officer, suggests that the robbers clear off “in an amicable way.” The pair continues to threaten the family. When the contriving head of the family takes the initiative, the robbers face his pistol. The Captain takes the guys, tied-up, in a car into the woods. There he kills them, like cattle.

to liveThe last frame of the black-and-white film, verified in every single detail in a documentary, investigative manner, captures the meeting of the FSB officer with a lonely mushroom picker, the neighbour of his summer house, who had stopped by the road when he heard a call for help. “Everything’s all right,” the captain says, “I was there. There are no mushrooms there. Over there, (points across the road): don’t go. I have checked it out.” He gets into his car and leaves, having invited his neighbour for supper. The man, having pondered a little, makes his way back home. Weighing the realities of the present day and the unwritten law of morality, the spectator has to decide where the border lies between judgement and self-judgment, between retribution and revenge. For a good reason, the characters of Russian films in recent years have been “cops” and “convicts”, in a skirt or trousers, nice and less so. Filmmakers venture into a sphere which knows no rules. Waking under the pressure of an aggressive environment, the truck-driver-hero of Sergei Loznitsa’s phantasmagorical My Joy (Schast’e moe) snatches a pistol in the finale and shoots everyone who comes his way. The nice villagers of Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Peremirie) scald the leg of a Bashkir gastarbeiter with boiled water, trying to extort where he has hidden the money stolen from an uncle. The Bashkir has hidden the money them in a carcass. The “operation” is led by a policeman, who tries to help “his own”.

Because of the formlessness of life, people bunch; the key question is whether to accept or reject “one’s own” or “another’s.” Then there is bewilderment: who is the “other” if everybody lives in his own system of coordinates, in a situation of total alienation from relatives and friends, let’s say: from ordinary society.

to liveThe nice hunter, the respectable family man from Bykov’s film To Live, in the end becomes a murderer. The ending is symptomatic. Behind it stands the polemic of contemporary man with the humanistic pathos of Russia’s tradition. Purposefully the ending unfolds against the backdrop of a destroyed church, which stands alone in the field, where beavers have built their lodges in the distance. In one of the abandoned hovels, an old man who seems to have been held up in this world, has not quite finished his last bottle when, like an annoying fly, he is beaten up by the young thugs. Before his death the old man manages to ask: “What have you, sonnies, done, brother to brother…”, to which the leader answers: “We are devils, not people. It’s too late to silence us”.

In the film there is a conversation of the heroes about God. The hunter, Uncle Misha (Vladislav Toldykov), is almost a character from Turgenev’s Hunter’s Sketches. The film’s action develops in the darling Russian central strip, with its low-key landscapes, forest-steppe, transparent autumn coppice, ochre tones of shrivelled grass. Mikhail has suffered the loss of his favourite dog, who has been shot so it cannot betray him to the persecutors; he believes in the existence of God. Andrei (Denis Shvedov) has apparently not reflected on this question. He has lived, amassed, taken, killed, loved, married, raised children. Together with his current persecutors (Andrei has been “exposed”) the inspectors are after him, which means he has to be killed so he cannot surrender “his own”. The gloomy, beautiful lad with his shaved head is more striking and expressive than the annoying, baggy, verbose Mikhail. Playing the hunter is the ingenious Evgenii Leonov, with his indisputable positive charm even in negative roles, with the latent duplicity of a sympathetic man (because this is the nature of imperfect man); he introduces an existential moment to the role: conscious choice. Toldykov’s character is unpleasant from the beginning: he hurries, he is shallow. You expect him to play a dirty trick. He is unpredictable for himself, a hostage to the situation, and he swims with the stream. It is clear that the dog, however much pity there may be, has to be gotten rid of to save himself. Therefore Mikhail’s shot fired at the unarmed Andrei, who has not killed and not betrayed the new friend, is partly predictable. This does not make it easier for the viewer, because the author suggests to adopt Mikhail’s position as a certain norm of our days: one even more severe than the “gangster morale”, than those rules of the game according to which a large part of the country lives. Mikhail’s position, despite all the conversations about God, the dear daughters, the pregnant wife, is one-dimensional: to save his skin and to live. The director himself points out Mikhail’s one-dimensionality: “…it transpires that Andrei, an angry man who does not inspire positive emotions, is much more humane and honest than all the others, because he possesses a certain strength of mind. Because he still has a bit of his youthful maximalism. In the face of death he could live by the highest principles registered in secret law.”

When his own life is concerned, Mikhail puts a comma after the word “to execute”. Andrei makes another conscious choice,  and therefore turns from a gangster into a man, placing the comma after the word “not”. He has not killed the man with whom he shared his last lot, and with whom he spent the last hours of his earthly life.

liveThe author argues with himself in the film. On the one hand, he obviously confirms that there are unwritten laws. On the other hand he reckons that they are not observed: “… laws of morality no longer work for us, because the one who follows them inevitably perishes, and the person living along the canons of adaptation, survives and is happy.” On the one hand, one of his heroes, an inveterate gangster, is capable of performing a noble act, even if senseless from a practical point of view. On the other hand, the annoying and sympathetic man suddenly becomes a murderer. And he returns home, to his wife and daughters, through the waste ground to new buildings.

The novelty of Bykov’s position is that he shatters conventional proportions, the relationships of cause and effect, and suggests a different kind of morality in his film. On the one hand, in the filmic space, in the landscape where the ruins of a church are imprinted, the vertical axis of spiritual laws is distinctly set out: they have “ceased to work.” On the other hand, the filmmaker shows that without these laws man, whether a thug or a respectable citizen, loses the original meaning of life. Even if they are not observed, moral laws are objective and influence the meaning of human life.

And then there is the Divine Judgment—for those who believe in it.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Tat’iana Moskvina-Iashchenko

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To Live, Russia, 2010
Color, 74 min., Dolby SR
Scriptwriter and Director Iurii Bykov
Director of Photography Ivan Burlakov
Production Design Andrei Vasin
Costume Design Gelena Martemianova
Sound Nadezhda Iarovaia
Cast: Denis Shvedov, Vladislav Toldykov, Aleksei Komashko, Sergei Zharkov, Konstantin Strelnikov, Sergei Sosnovskii, Sergei Beliaev
Producers Aleksei Uchitel’, Kira Saksaganskaia
Production Studio Rok

Iurii Bykov: To Live (Zhit’, 2010)

reviewed by Tat’iana Moskvina-Iashchenko © 2011

Updated: 02 Oct 11