Issue 64 (2019)

Ivan Tverdovskii: Jumpman (Podbrosy, 2018)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2019

podbrosyCongenital analgesia, a rare disease that prevents an individual from feeling pain, is at the heart, both literally and figuratively, of Ivan I. Tverdovskii’s latest film, Jumpman. Suffering from this quite unusual disease is the sixteen-year-old protagonist Denis Polianskii (Denis Vlasenko), who finds himself ushered by his mother (Anna Slyu) away from the foster home—an internat—that has sheltered him for the last sixteen years. Abandoned as a newborn by his wayward mother, seen at the very start of Jumpman dropping her son in a deposit-like baby box, the teenage Denis sneaks off with his now repentant mother through a window of the foster home and into the dark world of Moscow, despite—or perhaps because of—his rare case of congenital analgesia. What also remains unclear is whether this disease will hinder or help Denis in the real, everyday world of contemporary Russia. A bit of both, it turns out.

Denis’s mother, we soon learn, has arranged for her son to use his special talent to withstand pain for some quick cash and for the subsequent enrichment of her well-connected friends. Communicating with a handler by phone while lurking on a Moscow street amidst nighttime passersby, the innocent-looking Denis takes a few deep breaths and then hurls himself before an oncoming automobile. The impact is both sudden and shocking. Denis lies prostrate on the street and is then rushed by ambulance to the hospital, apparently having seriously harmed—or even killed—himself. The medics, however, do not seem in the least bit alarmed. Lo and behold, Denis rises from the stretcher with nary a limp or an ache. A vigorous high-five from a police officer and an attending doctor’s approving nods signal that Denis has ventured into some sort of shady criminal operation. The police officer (Danil Steklov), soon shown receiving a payoff from the framed driver, carries out the devious plan not in broad daylight—most of Jumpman, in fact, is filmed at nighttime amidst jarring flashing lights, clouds of vape smoke and cool, metallic tones—but with hardly a concern about propriety. Even more flagrant is the lawless action of the female judge and the prosecutor-defender couple who are in on the plot: the judge (Aleksandra Ursuliak) presides over a court where the law is flaunted, defendants’ rights are ignored, and Denis’s faulty testimony is used to ensnare and convict a steady stream of automobile drivers unwilling to pay the hefty bribes required to extract themselves from their carefully staged predicaments. Denis appears numb not only to the hard thump of the automobile, but also to the moral implications of such a scheme.

podbrosyOn similarly shaky ethical ground is the relationship between Denis and his mother, whom he casually refers to as Oksana. “We’re going to do everything the right way from now on,” Oksana tells her son at one point. “What’s the right way?” he asks. “The right way,” she explains, “is to be happy.” Following their surreptitious flight from the foster home, a brief trip to an upscale supermarket shows them sampling the merchandise in the store and then making a run for it. And their ethically precarious relationship only intensifies at home in her fancy, shiny apartment, where both Oksana and Denis lounge about in nothing but their underwear; their cuddling, kissing, and close dancing suggest that this is no ordinary mother-son relationship, even if Denis at times wonders why his mother ignored him for so many years. Scenes between Oksana and Denis become increasingly fraught and also difficult to watch. Returning home from one of several hedonistic, late-night gatherings featured in the film, Denis holds up his intoxicated mother so that she might urinate in the grass, and it is at this very moment that she at last tells him that she loves him. Their love, alas, will not endure.

podbrosyFraming the bulk of the film’s action are variations on a masochistic game of torture played early on in the film by Denis in the bathroom of the foster home where he first lives. Denis—or Den, as he is often called by both his mother and his peers—has hoses wrapped around his torso and then has several other boys at the foster home squeeze him as hard and as long as possible. Evocative of a crucifixion scene, the sequence shows Denis’s unusual resolve put to the test. Thanks to his congenital analgesia, Denis is able to withstand over a minute of this torturous game before he eventually drops to the ground. He will, however, soon rise. Yet instead of some sort of heavenly ascension, the Christ-like Denis is sent out into the purgatory of contemporary Russia. And later in the film, as Tverdovskii’s protagonist starts to pick at the increasingly painful, conspicuous wounds on his torso and at the same time begins to waver with indecision prior to throwing himself before the onrushing automobiles, this same torture game with hoses is depicted once again, only this time with loose hoses that cause the other boys to fall away from Denis while his blood grotesquely spurts all over his semi-playful tormentors. In what proves the penultimate scene of Jumpman, the boys are shown pulling on hoses that no longer wrap around Denis or suffocate him; he has, it is implied, liberated himself from his neurological demons and gained both physical and moral feeling.

podbrosyFollowing the lead of a number of other relatively recent Russian films critical of Putin-era society, such as Vasilii Sigarev’s Wolfy (Volchok, 2009), Iurii Bykov’s Fool (Durak, 2014) and Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), Jumpman emerges as a poignant, unflinching parable about contemporary Russia. The female judge at the heart of the hit-and-bribe automobile scheme resides in her courtroom before a prominent Russian double-headed eagle seal, and at a party in honor of her promotion, the white, blue, and red Russian flag, projected on to a big screen, flaps visibly in the near background. The judge and the rest of her gang serve as metonymic standard bearers for a corrupt judicial system and society in which those abandoned by their parents—such as Denis and, in a metaphorical way, many others, it can be inferred—are numb to the effects of such a suffocating, unjust system. Tverdovskii’s screenplay for the film proves both succinct and hard-hitting, while the cinematography by Denis Alarcón Ramirez highlights through its glossy, dark surfaces the moral shallowness of Russian contemporaneity. Whereas Tverdovskii’s previous film, Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016), explored Russian life through whimsical, semi-fantastical means, Denis’s extraordinary ability to endure pain has some basis in reality and thus offers a useful, penetrating means for probing the rampant corruption and conspicuous immorality plaguing today’s Russia. Gradually discovering a newfound capacity to feel pain, Denis will have to stand up to his mother and the others. And there is also the realization that life might not be so bad back at the foster home.

Lastly, among the many provocative, ambiguous aspects of Tverdovskii’s Jumpman that might leap out at viewers are its divergent yet complementary Russian and English titles. The neologistic Russian title—Podbrosy—conjures up notions of abandonment as well as Denis’s repeated act of tossing himself under an automobile. The English title of the film, meanwhile, evokes the superhuman qualities that Denis wields as he does the bidding of his mother’s avaricious friends. “You are my superhero,” Oksana tells him. For a time, he is all powerful as he performs amazing acts of daring by hurling himself in front of the expensive automobiles. But once Denis begins to resist, he loses his cache among the judge and her accomplices. At one relatively late point in the film, as his “powers” seem to be dwindling, Denis even gives his mother a little “jumpman” action figure, but it is ultimately not superheroes, Tverdovskii implies, that Russia needs but rather citizens who might react in ethical, less elastic ways to the corruption all around them. “There are those who jump and those who make other people jump. And there are millions who jump,” Denis is told by one of the few well-to-do drivers able to avoid the trap set for him on the Moscow streets.  And it is only through the pain that gradually arises in Tverdovskii’s protagonist that the boy can begin to extract himself from his moral quandary and that those millions of Denis’s compatriots can likewise extract themselves from all the proverbial jumping required in today’s Russia. At the very end of the film, however, things come full circle, as yet another mother drops off her newborn in a baby box at the foster home. Whether this child will be able to experience pain remains to be seen, but at least there is some hope that the new orphan will one day be better able to feel the aches and pains necessary for courageous resistance to Putin-era corruption or to whatever comes next.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

Comment on this article on Facebook

Jumpman, Russia 2018
Color, 88 min.
Director & Scriptwriter: Ivan Tverdovskii
Cinematography: Denis Alarcón Ramirez
Visual Effects: Nikolai Huber
Music: Kirill Rikhter
Cast: Denis Vlasenko, Anna Sliu, Danil Steklov, Aleksandra Ursuliak, Pavel Chinarev, Vilma Kutaviciute
Producer: Natalia Mokritskaia
Production: New People

Ivan Tverdovskii: Jumpman (Podbrosy, 2018)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2019

Updated: 2019