Issue 70 (2020)

Ivan Snezhkin: The Liver (Pechen’, 2019)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova © 2020

liverReinterpretations of the turbulent, transitional 1990s in Russia have been one of the more popular topics of Russian cinematography of the past decade. According to Ivan Snezhkin’s directorial debut The Liver: A Story about a Startup (Pechen’: Istoriia odnogo startapa, 2019), the first post-Soviet decade was “all about the money”, and a little bit about hope. Most importantly, however, it is now far enough away to have become a myth, if not a fairy tale.

In line with the materialist slogan quoted above and spelled out countless times in the film, Snezhkin’s intention was to make an uncomplicated, commercially successful film, which would read as a lighthearted coming-of-age comedy with some nostalgic flair (Anisimova 2019). This young graduate of the Film Institute VGIK, known for several short films and collaboration on the production of Fedor’s Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013), offers the spectator a dynamic feature that sways between the believable and the unimaginably absurd, boldly mixing Hollywood and Russian cinematographic references. The Liver received limited attention from the major national film distribution companies, and critiques that could at best be labelled as ambiguous, but also reaped an award for Best Debut at the Vyborg Window to Europe international film festival of 2019, an acknowledgment of some of the production’s solid, if not outstanding qualities, including Oleg Lukichev’s clever, suggestive, but not self-indulgent cinematography.

Snezhkin’s vocation to brighten up the screens of Russian filmgoers with attractive, uncomplicated, visually compelling films shines through every aspect of this production, from the plot to the characters, cast and soundtrack. All these elements coalesce to create a very specific image of the recent past, directly conversing with its iconic, darkly humorous cinematic renditions, such as Aleksei Balabanov’s films (cf. also Shardonov 2019).

liverLiver chooses the memory of the 1990s as its subject, making it clear—in the spirit of 1960's Soviet science-fiction cinema—that this is a film about a different time and space, both partly utopian and partly based on someone’s experience. Except, if Soviet science-fiction protagonists usually dream about the better future, Snezhkin’s protagonists fantasize about the past, which, if not better, appears to have been fun and full of possibilities. Lekha (Daniil Vakhrushev), an average middle-aged man working “in the plastic-window business” in the film’s—and presumably the spectators’—present is eager to narrate the story of his youth in St Petersburg of the late 1990s. His action-driven narrative implicitly comments on a broad spectrum of social issues in post-Soviet Russia, from its corrupt and criminal local elites, to the disintegration of the education system and a generally post-apocalyptic atmosphere, complicated by oblique expectations of the onset of a long-feared, yet intriguing capitalist economic order.

In his last year of high school, Lekha belongs to a group of three misfits who mostly have fun, sex, and mischief on their mind. “The boys will become criminals, and the girls will end up as whores,” prophesizes their homeroom teacher (Valerii Kukhareshin). Indeed; the most popular girl in class, Sveta (the stuntwoman Aleksandra Kissel’), resents school and declares she has no intention of filling out university applications.

liverMeanwhile, the entrepreneurial Lekha, confused Vovchik (Evgenii Egorov), and crudely romantic Mamed (Murad Akhmedov), unburdened by ideologies of the Soviet past, envisage a future for themselves in big business. The three high-school-dropouts-to-be are so obsessed with fast cars, money, and girls with cleavage that they decide to do business with Kostik, a local criminal in need of a liver transplant. The plan involves stealing a liver from the local hospital, where it is intended for Vovchik’s disabled brother, described by the narrator as a complete nuisance. This outrageously unethical idea, the boys’ only chance at solving their mundane problems such as buying a high-school diploma, fixing an unintentionally wrecked car, and starting their own business, clearly does not materialize as planned. The scene is set for an hour and a half of gags, jokes, and absurd situations, which leave the viewer wondering whether the carefully set-out historical framework was at all necessary.

What unravels before the spectator is a collage of stereotypes about the transitional 1990s and its cinematic representations, turning the brutal but funny characters into source material, quite literally. Kostik, the liver-seeking small mafia-boss, is played by Sergei Makovetskii, and the provider of fake diplomas is embodied by Konstantin Murzenko, both known for similarly eccentric roles in Balabanov’s films, such as Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005). Liver raises the post-Soviet transition era and its cinematic legacy to the level of a self-referential signifier. The crooks in Snezhkin’s film prefer to engage with a select few fictional representations of their predecessors to engaging with the complex legacy of the era itself. The soundtrack, including songs such as Leningrad’s “Money” (2002) and Monetochka’s “Kapital” (2016), also abounds in interpretations of, rather than reports from the 1990s, cementing the foundation of this collage.

liverThe last decade of the 20th century is effectively turned into a roller-coaster with picturesque views of the apparently amusing world below. This wild and dangerous ride with no particular aim rattles over post-Soviet apartments, full of cigarette smoke, wall-carpets, dated furniture, and melodramatic gatherings at the kitchen table. It peeks into the tunnel of the criminal, mafia-ruled underground, hinting that any seemingly law-abiding citizen, including respectable schoolteachers, could be a shady entrepreneur on the side. Apart from emphasizing economic hardship and lawlessness, the film foregrounds problems related to changes in ideology and collective remembrance culture. Evoking episodes from his schooldays, Lekha mocks the very possibility of Russians taking responsibility for crimes committed against other ethnic groups under Soviet rule, characteristic of the post-Soviet transition. At the same time, this very storyline is juxtaposed against instances of lived experiences, such as Lekha’s relationship with his Azeri friend Mamed.

In a surprising twist, Mamed dies at the end of the film, and his family returns to Azerbaijan. The other characters, whose collective bonds and social functions foregrounded in the production preclude their individual, personal development, “slow down” in less dramatic ways. Kostik eventually gets his liver, while both Lekha and Vovchik manage to graduate, as does Sveta. Despite the film's clear intention to entertain and to prevent the audience from overthinking, it is intriguing to read this ending as a comment on the past future of Russian society. Following the film’s main narrative arc, teamwork, multicultural collaboration, youth and motivation can do wonders, no matter how absurd and naive the goals. One by one, however, these elements break away, as it becomes clear that there is nothing more to them than “the money.” Eventually, youth also passes, leaving the survivors to embrace a comfortable, perhaps boring existence that fosters a nostalgia for the half-forgotten past. In this sense, this story about a “startup” from a time before the term became a part of Russian business-speak reads as a cautionary tale from prehistoric times, one to perplex and amuse aspiring business-founders of the 21st century.

Natalija Majsova
Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve and University of Ljubljana

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Anisimova, Elena. 2019. “My ne takie skuchnye i khotim snimat' kino dlia zritelei.” Interview with Ivan Snezhkin. 6 August

Shardonov, Slava [_arlekin_]. 2019. “Pechen’, rezh. Ivan Snezhkin.” Livejournal 7 August.

Liver, Russia, 2019
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Ivan Snezhkin
Screenplay: Sergei Grachev (Sergei Snezhkin)
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Music: Denis Pekarev
Costumes: Anastasiia Potashkina
Cast: Daniil Vakhrushev, Evgenii Egorov, Murad Akhmedov, Sergei Makovetskii, Evgeniia Dobrovol’skaia, Aleksandr Oblasov, Valerii Kukhareshin, Svetlana Pismichenko, Konstantin Murzenko, Aleksei Filimonov, Aleksandra Kissel’.
Producers: Vladimir Malyshev, Fedor Popov
Production: VGIK-Debut
Release: 28 September 2019

Ivan Snezhkin: The Liver (Pechen’, 2019)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova © 2020

Updated: 2020