Issue 51 (2016)

Mikhail Ugarov, The Brothers Ch (Brat'іа Ch, 2014)

reviewed by Joshua First© 2016

bratia-chThe Brothers Ch is a film about a playwright, written by a playwright and directed by a theatrical director, based on a successful play. The director, Mikhail Ugarov, has become an important figure in contemporary Russian theatre, currently managing—with his wife Elena Gremina—Teatr.doc in Moscow, where the idea of “documentary theatre” was invented, promoting the premise of total authenticity in dialog. Ugarov productions have involved interviews on timely issues, and actual responses have been worked into corresponding performances. In The Brothers Ch,Elena Gremina took this idea to a film about Chekhov, basing the entire script on letters between the Chekhov brothers, and memoirs and diaries written by the brothers and other family members. Moreover, Ugarov made The Brother Ch in a contemporary cinematic style, employing location shooting at the Tolstoy Museum near Nikol’skoe-Viazemskoe to stand in for the Babkino estate where the Chekhov family spent their summers, and shooting most of the film with a hand-held camera in close-up with very little non-diegetic sound. The result is a highly minimalistic film that nonetheless encapsulates traditional themes in the “portrait of the artist” genre.

The Brothers Ch is about one day in the life of 25-year old Anton Chekhov in the 1880s, at a time when he was just beginning to make a name for himself writing comedic short stories, and when he began working on a much larger novel that he never finished. During this time, he lived with and supported his privileged but broke family at the Kiselev estate in the village of Babkino near Moscow. The film begins with vignettes of the three protagonists: Anton takes an introspective swim in the Istra River; Aleksandr, Anton’s older brother and also a writer, nervously smokes a cigarette; and Nikolai, the younger brother and artist, pretends to paint a landscape when Anton knows full well that the canvas is blank.

bratiaThe Brothers Ch is organized around confrontations and revelations that take place during the day and evening. In the first substantive scene, Anton confronts his younger brother, Nikolai, whom he calls him “Kosoi” (squint-eyed) throughout the film, about his drinking and how he has been squandering his talents with drink. Here, we also meet Kolia’s playmate Natal’ia Gol’den, who enables his bad habits. In the next movement of the plot, his older brother Aleksandr complains to Anton that he has been overshadowed by his younger brother, but he also pleads with him to help him get published. Throughout this confrontation, Anton reveals his indifference to his brother’s pledges and tantrums. Next, Anton’s fiancée Evdokiia Isaakevna (Dunia) arrives and sparks a jealous conflict between her and Natal’ia who, we now learn, is also in love with Anton. In the next scene, the three brothers, Dunia, Natal’ia, and the family’s patriarch Pavel lunch together, which brings many of these latent conflicts into the open. Pavel Chekhov reveals himself to be an insecure anti-Semite (Dunia and Natal’ia are both Jewish), whose abuse of his children stems from his desire to make the historically humble Chekhov family respectably middle class. Next, Pavel confronts Anton about money, revealing that Anton is already supporting the entire family with his short stories. Anton tries to tell his father about new opportunities himself, but it becomes clear that his father is only interested in how lucrative those opportunities are. The relationship between Anton and Natal’ia is further explored in the next scene, which leads to their embrace and a kiss that Dunia walks in on. After a seemingly friendly game between the two women and Anton and his father, Dunia abruptly leaves Babkino never to return. As night falls, Aleksandr once again confronts Anton with jealousy about his success. After Anton again ignores the situation by commenting on the weather in the midst of his brother’s crisis, Aleksandr pulls out a gun, initially intending to kill himself through a game of Russian Roulette, but then points it at Anton instead and fires. The bullet is not, however, in the chamber and he then points it at himself and pulls the trigger. We hear a live shot as the scene cuts, but we know, of course, that Aleksandr survives.

During the final ten minutes, the camera slowly pans across the forest and marshland around the country estate to the sound of a flute, the first and only instance of non-diegetic sound in the entire film. In voiceover, Anton provides a long view ending, as if from beyond the grave, where he tells of Aleksandr’s marriage to Natal’ia (suggested in the plot toward the end of the film) and Nikolai’s early death owing to his problems with alcohol.

While the film serves to humanize Chekhov, providing him with plenty of negative traits, and is concerned with the effects of the writer’s ego on his family, it nonetheless affirms his genius by organizing the Chekhov family exclusively around him. Interestingly, Ugarov insists, “The genre of our film is a family drama. It’s in no way a bio-pic. It simply happens within the Chekhov family” (Kataeva 2014). Perhaps a limitation of her method and sources, screenwriter Gremina does not allow much drama to happen in Anton’s absence, nor does she allow the characters to speak without the mediating influence of the most important of the brothers. Nonetheless, if we take Ugarov’s statement to heart, the film feels overburdened and somewhat artificial for trying to squeeze a lifetime of “family drama” into the span of a single day.

Joshua First
University of Mississippi

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Kataeva, Nina (2014), ‘Vremia “ch” dlia “Brat’ev ch”’, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 13 January.

The Brothers Ch, Russia, 2014
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Mikhail Ugarov
Script: Elena Gremina
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Cast: Egor Koreshkov, Artem Grigor'ev, Aleksandr Molochnikov, Iana Irten'eva, Aleksandra Rebenok, Sergei Grekov, Roman Sinitsyn, Tat'iana Chepelevich,
Producer: Liza Antonova
Production Company: Passazhir Kinostudiia

Mikhail Ugarov, The Brothers Ch (Brat'іа Ch, 2014)

reviewed by Joshua First© 2016

Updated: 02 Jan 16