Issue 70 (2020)

Aleksandr Barshak: The Pilgrim (Piligrim, 2018)

reviewed by David McVey © 2020

piligrimThe title of Aleksandr Barshak’s film The Pilgrim could pack a meaningful cultural wallop, given its straightforward invocation of a wayfaring adherent of a spiritually centered worldview. Producers could have titled the film with any number of synonyms for “traveler” in modern Russian. The dictionary of synonyms, New Explanatory Dictionary of Synonyms of the Russian Language, indexes the Russian word piligrim under the category brodiaga (stroller, vagabond, hobo). Among other related terms, this dictionary indicates a semantic overlap with three associated terms: palomnik (pilgrim), piligrim (pilgrim), and strannik (wanderer). According to the entry, these three religiously motivated vagabonds “have a defined goal; they travel to holy places. The neutral word in the group is palomnik. The word piligrim indicates a Western, primarily Catholic culture, while the word strannik [connotes] the opposite, a Russian, Orthodox culture (Apresian 2004, 66).

The Polish critic Jerzy Lisowski further unpacks the nuances between the nouns piligrim and palomnik. He notes that both terms derive from the Latin: “palomnik from the word for palm, referencing the custom of Christian travelers who sojourn to Jerusalem and return thence with palm fronds (similar to the ones with which Jerusalemites greeted Christ in their own time)” (Lisovskii 2011). The term piligrim, notes Lisowski, traces its etymology to the Latin term peregrinus, “which literally signifies someone from a foreign land.” Noting that both words commonly convey a figurative meaning, Lisowski draws a distinction between the two; palomnik can be applied to anyone “who arrives somewhere from afar with a single goal—to see something, which need not necessarily be the object of a religious cult;” piligrim, on the other hand, applies to “a traveler engaged in the process of a journey, usually any traveler in a foreign country, regardless of the goal of his trip” (ibid.).

PiligrimBarshak’s film distills all three elements of the term piligrim into the eponymous pilgrim, Gleb, played by Igor’ Petrenko with alternating overintensity and languidity. Gleb is supposed to practice a clandestine religion while he travels about Sochi and its picturesque environs, without any place qualifying as a safe harbor. The film, however, dials up foreign and transient aspects of pilgrimage for most of its runtime, perhaps in an unintentionally “meta” approach, resulting in a picture that frequently confounds viewers, forestalling investment with characters and story. The film’s religious component of pilgrimage at first appears to run into a symbolic dead end, only to shift gears and wrest control of the narrative’s helm two-thirds through, hurtling the film over a cliff into thematic exploitation.

As the action in The Pilgrim sets into motion one melancholy winter day under a steely sky on the Black Sea coast, a father-and-son fisherman duo and their dog encounter what they initially perceive as a drowned man. Kicking at the limp body, the older man mutters, “a dead man.” Following this pronouncement, the body jolts to life, twitching and spewing saltwater. In a stroke of biblical irony, two lowly fishermen have resurrected Gleb, the film’s wandering man of faith, who thence stumbles unceremoniously into Sochi, ignoring their offers of assistance. Since he is the film’s pilgrim, Gleb’s name cannot be insignificant, as he shares it with one of the first two canonized saints in Christianized Kievan Rus’. According to “The Martyrdom of Boris and Gleb,” the two saints refused to challenge their brother Sviatopolk’s claim to the throne following the death of their father, Vladimir the Great. Sviatopolk’s assassins killed Boris first. Upon news of Boris’ murder, “Saint Gleb wept for his father and brother, and was lamenting them when the assassins arrived. They seized his boat and drew their weapons, but it was Gleb’s cook Torchin who stabbed him with a knife” (OCA). The chronicle (OCA) continues, “The martyr’s body was thrown onto the shore between two trees”. The film, in fact, begins with Gleb’s having been washed onto a shore. It stretches interpretation, but the fishermen might symbolize the two trees. And the film’s climax features a knife-wielding attacker, who narrowly fails at killing Gleb. Thus, it is plausible that the screenwriters had Saint Gleb in mind while penning the script. The film does not reveal Gleb’s name until the story’s climax, however.

PiligrimAlthough Gleb suffers from debilitating headaches and amnesia, he is determined to transmit a certain message to an unknown recipient, and, as he shuffles along Sochi’s port and side streets, he mutters incoherent phrases, such as, “Eliminate in the case of failure.” He also repeats a series of numbers, in the hopes of conjuring up a vital code from his fragmented memory. Frequent flashbacks to a desert prison cell, deafening explosions, and skull-rattling gunfire plague his every waking and sleeping minute. Gleb simultaneously seeks Miroslava, a statuesque art dealer frequently shod in stilettoes, played by Elena Sever, a chanteuse-cum-actress whose performance vacillates almost imperceptibly between boredom and mild annoyance. Miroslava, whose unusual name figures as a pivotal plot point, and in the tradition of Russian “telling names” may convey notions of peace, lives in a splendid hilltop manor with her financial advisor husband, Oleg, played by a never more irascible Aleksei Serebriakov, and the two are negotiating marital contretemps, as the overbearing Oleg places unreasonable limits on Mira’s freedom. Following an attempted suicide, triggered by her paramour’s precipitous departure, which terminated a brief, yet intense romantic affair, Mira seeks psychological reconciliation under the supervision of psychotherapist Vera Vladimirovna, played with nonchalant condescension by Tat’iana Vasil’eva. In the meantime, Oleg dispatches the couple’s only son to a boarding school in a never-named Anglophone country, likely the United States, judging by accents and discussions of soccer practice. (In a comical exchange over Skype, Oleg berates his rapidly Americanizing son for addressing him as “Dad” and referring to the motherland as Rashka.

PiligrimGleb somehow possesses intimate details about Mira’s deceased parents and her star-crossed affair, but post-traumatic syndrome prevents him from recalling with certainty whether it was indeed he who had been her erstwhile lover. Mira wonders whether she may have blocked out her lover’s face after her own post-breakup trauma. The two reconstruct their putative acquaintance via a walk-through in the shuttered sanatorium where they had supposedly first locked gazes in a “Roman courtyard.” But Mira concludes Gleb is not the one, as she cannot summon the head-over-heels rush she experienced years ago, as the two move in closely for an aborted kiss. This walk-and-talk, as well as a brief visit to the father (Vladimir Il’in) of Mira’s missing lover, Kostia (Pavel Kuzin), convinces Gleb he does not know Mira. If Mira’s name signifies peace, then Gleb does not know it. Until this point, however, Gleb has stalked Mira throughout Sochi, fainting next to her swimming pool when stunned by a security floodlight, confronting her in the gallery parking garage after dark, and skulking conspicuously outside her house’s exterior walls. Oleg quickly wearies of Gleb’s prowling and dispatches thugs to eliminate the pilgrim’s constant presence. At this point, Gleb is an extremely wanted man, not only by assassins, but by local authorities, intelligence services, and a skilled sharpshooter (Pavel Kuz’min), who claims to know Gleb from his time in the desert and who has orchestrated a nefarious scheme concerning Russia. This comrade saves Gleb’s life from the hired killers, but later turns on Gleb when the two men part ways ideologically, a falling out which spurs the film’s violent climax.

PiligrimFrom the outset The Pilgrim adopts a convention of raising potentially intriguing connections, only to abandon them in favor of farfetched plot twists. For example, the film prompts viewers to make associations among the shore where Gleb washed up; Mira and her art gallery, which is named “Bereg,” (meaning: shore) but spelled out in Latin letters; mass-produced consumer goods; and classified information. Russian speakers know the gallery’s name means “shore” or “bank”, which viewers will associate with the film’s opening sequence. Years earlier, Mira’s gallery released mass-produced, commemorative keychains with the gallery’s logo, which features its name. The gallery clearly overproduced these trinkets, as even operatives in the terrorist cell have them. Mira’s personal keychain, which serves as the prototype for the reproductions, conceals a flash drive Kostia uses to safeguard intelligence. But it is not only cheap souvenirs with which Mira’s gallery floods the market. As Gleb lurks outside, Mira evaluates a new collection of paintings that her ambiguously gendered assistant Raya, played with convincing, yet purposeless awkwardness by Irina Rakhmanova, has procured for sale. The art maven Mira maligns the canvases her subordinate has acquired as “plagiarism” and “self-reproductions,” reprimanding her crestfallen assistant, “Raya, my dear, we don’t deal in plagiarism.” In her defense, Raya contends that art reproductions are trendsetting and profitable. She shakes a boxful of the leftover keychains, intimating that mass production and replication are exactly the gallery’s bailiwick, a claim that irritates Mira, causing the proprietor to register more emotion than she does at any other point in the film. If the “shore,” the starting point of Gleb’s pilgrimage, and “peace,” Mira herself, are linked to cheap, mass-produced self-reproductions, then what implications does this correlation maintain with regard to Gleb, his journey, spirituality, and art? There very well may be a profound statement couched in this symbolic network of associations, but the film settles on highlighting the keychain-flash drive’s coincidental chain of custody from Mira to Kostia, then to the sharpshooter and the police. That its top-secret contents fortunately wind up in the hands of state intelligence at the end of the film also cries out for greater exposition.

PiligrimAnother compelling theme the film draws attention to, yet never explores the societal implications of, is the state of Russia’s technology-mediated existence, including omnipresent surveillance, wiretapping, and internet-based communications. Such a topic should complicate a film about a wandering believer, who can never truly unplug from the grid or evade Big Brother’s radar for long. Information-age communications have allowed humans to overcome time and distance in many regards, and the film might have considered the impact of this reality on, say, a pilgrim, who must cover lengthy distances on his quest. Gleb is audio- and video-recorded from the moment he gains consciousness, as the fisherman’s son whips out his smartphone to capture a potentially viral event. The teenager posts the video on his blog, which police are able to trace instantaneously. Later in the film, passing glimpses and close-ups of security cameras around Sochi remind viewers that Gleb’s every movement transpires under the authorities’ all-seeing gaze. In the film’s other narrative thread, Mira communicates with her son at boarding school via Skype. In addition, Oleg surveils Mira’s movements, maintaining nearly constant contact with her via cell phone and her car’s Bluetooth. His endeavors do not emanate completely from a selfless desire to prevent another suicide attempt. Thus, instead of cinematically engaging the advantages and pitfalls of today’s hypermediated lives, as Andrei Zviagintsev did in his film Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017), The Pilgrim merely presents the ubiquity of technology as an unremarkable aspect of contemporary existence, not something that alters our behavior or perspective, or alienates us from ourselves and each other. If anything, the film suggests these technologies serve a beneficial function, as they help the police prevent heinous crimes. Indeed, the grand revelation at the end of the film is that Gleb had himself been an intelligence officer and Arabic expert for the Russian military and engaged in his own brand of reconnaissance, explaining how he had found himself in Syria in the first place.

piligrimIn the third act, the film swerves from its Christian-themed trajectory, making a beeline into crass exploitation of an othered religion. The film features an plot twist involving Syrian extremists planning to carry out calamitous terror attacks in Russia. When the sharpshooter’s driver, Garik (Ruslan Khabibulov), helps Gleb evade arrest by pursuing police, the film uncovers through flashbacks that Gleb had been incarcerated in Syria, where he shared a cell Kostia, who it turns out was an intelligence officer in possession of crucial intelligence on ISIL/ISIS operatives, including Russian citizens. Gleb is also militarily trained, and, although in a state of amnesia, he is instantaneously able to summon martial art skills, fashion makeshift weapons, and employ lethal force with his bare hands throughout the film. (Many informal online reviews point to The Pilgrim’s similarities to the Jason Borne franchise.) Astute viewers will have already recognized that Gleb has arrived from the Middle East, as the film has provided numerous visual cues beyond flashbacks to this effect. For instance, Gleb wakes up on the beach sporting a characteristic, wispy beard; a kaftan; and loose, gauzy trousers. He hears angry-sounding Arabic shouts in his nightmares and mumbles in what Vera Vladimirovna presumes is “either Arabic or Farsi.” The police in pursuit of Gleb trace a telephone call to an unlisted phone number in the Middle East, and the sharpshooter’s chauffeur Garik is marked through looks and accent. Due to memory loss, however, Gleb no longer harbors loyalty to his former brothers-in-arms, their murderous machinations, or prescribed daily prayers. Whatever trauma Gleb experienced has severed his involvement in the faith.

piligrimAs an intelligence officer on a top-secret mission, Gleb spent time in Syria, where he established contacts with members of the Krasnodar terror cell. The film never establishes the degree to which Gleb converted in Syria, or whether he was under deep cover the whole time. For example, his sharpshooter comrade flips through smartphone pics of Gleb dressed convincingly and clutching a rifle in front of ISIL/ISIS banners. But, due to post-traumatic amnesia, Gleb remembers nothing about the experience people are claiming was his. This is not the first Russian film to depict a soldier who deploys to a warzone in a Muslim-majority area where the Soviet or Russian army is involved in operations, spends time as a POW, converts to Islam in captivity, and returns to Russia with his new faith to confront his former life and loved ones, who had dismissed him as dead. Vladimir Khotinenko’s film The Muslim (Musul’manin, 1994), follows the attempts of Kolya/Abdulla Ivanov (Evgenii Mironov), a former Soviet soldier who spent time in captivity in Afghanistan, as he reenters his native village. Now a devout, observant believer, Kolya struggles to coexist with the villagers, who lead a dissolute, hard-drinking existence. In 2015, Pavel Lungin’s exceedingly popular television series Homeland (Rodina, 2015), a remake of an Israeli series by way of the popular American Showtime series of the same name, casts Vladimir Mashkov as Aleksei Bragin, a Russian intelligence officer who converts while imprisoned in Chechnya. Upon his return to Moscow, Bragin finds his wife involved with another man and initiates a plot to act as a suicide bomber, intending to self-detonate on Red Square in Lenin’s Tomb.

Whereas Khotinenko and Lungin at least attempt an exploration of pressing social questions concerning family, honor, and values in what can be seen as a morally unmoored Russia, Barshak’s film uses the religious-conversion-and-conflict narrative as an exploitative plot device. The film does not portray the residents of Sochi as in need of any redemption. Gleb does not espouse any religious values that might benefit Russia since he has amnesia, and the film never establishes whether he truly converted. The film, on the other hand, presents a wholly positive and approving portrayal of the Russian security forces who succeed in liquidating the terror cell. Moreover, the interweaving of the violent terror-related plotline with Mira’s sentimental affair-related plotline results in a tonally bipolar film. In any case, The Pilgrim joins a micro-genre of Russian films dealing with POW converts to Islam, but does so only nominally, abandoning the opportunity to explore cultural clashes and affinities between Russia and the Middle East.

piligrimIn contrast to its muddled plot, Barshak’s film showcases arresting visuals and atmospherics. For example, the opening establishing shot is reminiscent of the introductory coastline montage in Zviagintsev’s bleak Leviathan (Leviafan,2014), only the desolate shore in the frame hugs Russia’s southern littoral, not the Arctic. A dilapidated wooden structure resembling gallows looms partially submerged off the shore. What does it represent? Is it a cross? Ruins? An empty tomb? The two trees from the tale of St Gleb’s death? As the two fishermen zoom ashore in a motorboat, the only other object in the frame appears be an oil tanker or table-topped island vanishing on the horizon. The shot is gorgeous, as the sea pulses rhythmically, but the film never elucidates as to its symbolism. Next, as Gleb hobbles into Sochi, a particolored, graffitied wall serves as a backdrop for his movements. Abstract drawings in garish colors and slogans scrawled in foreign alphabets suggest sensory overload and linguistic breakdown as Gleb re-enters his homeland. Later, when Gleb pilfers a clean change of attire from a clothesline outside a cottage on the town’s outskirts, a ginger-haired girl in an acid-green sweater waves welcomingly to him through a window. In a motion reminiscent of a priest’s blessing, Gleb raises his arm to acknowledge her gaze. The cinematography in these opening sequences establishes a color palette of steel grays and oversaturated hues, which are all enshrouded in mist in the damp winter air. This color scheme obtains to the film’s climax in Mira’s upended kitchen, with bright red chili peppers and matte-green cucumbers strewn about surfaces. The film’s camerawork and mise-en-scène set up an aesthetically compelling world, and a number of aerial drone shots of the mountains surrounding Sochi would look breathtaking on a wide screen, but what the narrative that these thoughtfully shot splashes of color, combined with oppressive maritime gloom, signifies is less determined. In addition, Aleksei Aigi’s swelling piano-and-strings score threatens to overwhelm the film in some scenes and succeeds in drowning out dialogue in others. Still, as the youth say today, the film is definitely a mood.

Still, if the film’s title is taken literally, then Gleb has a journey to complete. If anything, the purpose of Gleb’s travels in the film is twofold. Gleb must overcome amnesia and reveal his true identity, not only discovering who he is—Gleb—but also who he is not—neither Kostia nor a member of a terror cell hellbent on harming Russians. Nevertheless, as is likely the case concerning every pilgrim’s ultimate hope, Gleb’s journey, although tortuous and perilous, promises shelter at a destination on a peaceful shore. After Gleb determines he is not Mira’s lover, he experiences another identity-establishing epiphany upon meeting Kostia’s father, who initially mistakes the wanderer for his son. The old man is sorely disappointed when, after donning thick eyeglasses and pawing Gleb’s lapels, he realizes the younger man before him is not his kin. Still, he makes every effort at hospitality in order to get acquainted with Gleb and extract news about his son’s fate. When Kostia’s father trots off to fetch apples to accompany some tea to help “refresh the memory,” Gleb makes an identity-establishing breakthrough. As his reflection stares back from a mirror on the wall to the left, Gleb, with his back to the camera, notices a photograph of Kostia sitting on a windowsill to the right. The scene cuts to flashbacks in the Syrian prison, displaying Gleb and Kostia together, as Kostia recounts his affair with Mira. Gleb internalizes this story as if it were his own history. Everything becomes clear to him.

piligrimAs a pilgrim, Gleb need not merely traverse a given length of road; he also needs to possess some sense of purpose, so to speak, along the way. Given Gleb’s sense of purpose, the film might have more rightly been titled Palomnik after all, based on Lisowski’s discussion of pilgrimage. With the knowledge that he is not Mira’s ex-lover, Gleb must subsequently prove he is not involved in the terrorist brotherhood. In a violent climax in Mira’s home, Gleb prevents his sharpshooter comrade, who has commandeered a large kitchen knife, from stabbing Mira, a murder it was Gleb’s duty commit under his gang's credo. Gleb, thus, distances himself decisively from involvement in ISIL/ISIS, violating fraternal protocol and choking the life out of one of his former brothers, while saving the life of a Russian woman he hardly knows after all. This violent act redounds to Mira’s benefit, as well, as in the aftermath of the attack she and Oleg make significant overtures to mend their marriage, transporting their son back home to Russia and selling the house that has served as the setting of their contentious relationship for so long. As the film ends, Mira, although registering little emotional transformation, indicates to Gleb that she has moved beyond the psychological malaise incurred from her affair with Kostia. With closure regarding her former paramour’s demise, she stands to rest easier.

Although contrived and maudlin, the film’s conclusion suggests the wayfaring pilgrim Gleb has reached a peaceful end to his journey—at least for the time being—in the cozy home of Kostia’s bereft father. Why these two men, who have no other personal connection and had met for only twenty minutes—would share a home, even temporarily, stretches credibility. Nevertheless, the tying off of the two narratives demonstrates that Gleb’s journey has been successful. His return from Syria to Russia has bestowed on both Mira and Kostia’s father what the deceased officer could not: psychological balance for Mira and a surrogate son on whom Kostia’s father can dote. Indeed, Kostia’s father is eager to perform this re-instantiated role, preparing hot food for Gleb and doling out patriarchal aphorisms meant to soothe vagabonds with unappeasable wanderlust: “Gleb, everything is right here. Why look into the distance? Look at your feet, the road, [your] home…where everything is going to get cold…we can admire the sky later, on the other side.” Given how Gleb’s journey began, perhaps this closing sentiment should also be regarded as fatherly advice to the Russian military, which, such as Gleb had done, finds itself far from home on a number of fronts.

David McVey,
The Ohio State University

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Works Cited

Apresian, Iu. (ed.) 2004. Novyi ob’’iasnitel’nyi slovar’ sinonimov russkogo iazika. Moscow, Vienna: Iazyki slavianskoi kul’tury, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach.

Lisovskii, Ezhi [Jerzy Lisowski]. 2011. “Piligrimy i palomniki.” (Laboratoriia Novostei). 31 May.

OCA, 2012. “Martyrs and Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb.” Orthodox Church in America.

The Pilgrim, Russia 2018
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Barshak
Script: Denis Rodimin, Oleg Lukichev, Aleksandr Barshak
Cinematography: Sviatoslav Bulakovskii
Production Design: Vasilii Raspopov
Editing: Alekei Bobrov
Score: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Igor’ Petrenko, Elena Sever, Aleksei Serebriakov, Vladimir Il’in, Tat’iana Vasil’eva, Pavel Kuz’min, Irina Rakhmanova, Dmitrii Kulichkov
Producers: Elena Sever and Tania Statsman

Aleksandr Barshak: The Pilgrim (Piligrim, 2018)

reviewed by David McVey © 2020

Updated: 2020