Category Archives: Russian

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov (2013)

There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.

We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.

Vasiliy StalinIt’s during the flight training and WWII  scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.

The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.

While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.

The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.

Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.

Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.

Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.

Directed by Sergei Shcherbin

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Russian

Shine, Shine, My Star (1969)

“The peasant is on a farm. The worker is in the industry, and the bourgeois bloodsucker in on the Black Sea.”

Shine, Shine, My Star (Gori, Gori, Moya Zvezda) a 1969 film from director Alexander Mitta is a gem of Soviet cinema which examines the role of Art in society and asks whether or not an Artist can perform and create without political consequences. A complex, subtle and highly symbolic  film, Shine, Shine, My Star presents the story of a young, nimble actor, Iskremas (Oleg Tabokov), an artist who wants to bring  “The Art of Revolution to the Masses.” This he intends to accomplish by driving into the countryside and offering free theatre performances to the People.

The film begins with an explanation that it’s 1920, and that the story is set in the village of Krapivnitsky. The village is basically Red, but as the story plays out, it’s under frequent assault by bandits and also a White detachment passes through on the way to join Wrangel in the Crimea. Iskremas arrives in the village of Krapivnitsky with his “People’s Experimental Theatre,” and he’s full of enthusiasm which is conveyed through his energetic performances and speeches to the villagers.  He takes a young girl, a now unemployed Polish servant named Krysya (Elena Proklova) under his wing, and together they plan to put on the play Joan of Arc:

500 years ago, the bourgeois and the money bags sent to the stake the beautiful Jeanne. Jeanne from Arc.

The villagers, however, appear much more interested in the salacious silent film powered by Pashka, a man who ad-libs the narration and alters the content depending on the audience. Trouble arises for the villagers when the Whites arrive….

The film’s secondary title is Destiny of An Artist in Revolutionary Russia, and there are three artists whose fate we follow in the film.  There’s the idealistic actor Iskremas who wants to bring Shakespeare to the masses and his interpretation of Julius Caesar includes telling how the Roman Emperor was “killed by Revolutionaries.” Iskremas is disgusted by Pashka’s titillating film which shows the bourgeois sporting on the Black Sea. Iskremas sees the film as low-brow “vulgarity,” and tells Pashka that “people [are] yearning for genuine Art, and you give them junk.” The third artist in the film is house-painter Fedya (Oleg Efremov) whose home is full of amazing, incredibly beautiful Avant-garde paintings and who also is responsible for painting the Revolutionary Committee in the local meeting-house.

It would be easy and erroneous to dismiss this film as Soviet propaganda, and one should bear in mind the film’s conclusion and its secondary title “Destiny of an Artist in Revolutionary Russia.” The film depicts all sides of the political spectrum using art and various art forms for their own purposes (several scenes include a maudlin theatre performance of patriotic songs for the Whites), and inevitably since artists are the vanguard of culture, they all too frequently absorb the punishing results of any shift in political ideology.

The film is full of the most astonishing Avant-garde art–Avant-garde art was initially incorporated into Bolshevik culture, but after Stalin took power Avant-garde art and those who created it were suppressed. Avant-garde art was replaced by Socialist Realism which became the officially sanctioned art form. Shine, Shine, My Star shows forbidden art through the works of Fedya and then shows them being destroyed by the Whites, but including these scenes in the 1969 film is in itself a revolutionary act on the part of the director. At least some members of the audience must have known who really destroyed Avant-garde art and killed those who produced it, and including Avant-garde art in the film is a bold stroke. The Whites are shown as a fairly erratic, cruel bunch (one of the Whites is an insane Prince who shoots up everything in sight),  and while this must have pleased the censors, the scenes of this forbidden art form are breath-taking. Ultimately the film’s overall message is that the true Artist will inevitably be destroyed while Art is reduced to its lowest common denominator.

Shine, Shine, My Star, an incredible film in my opinion, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema Series

3 Comments

Filed under Russian, Soviet

Torpedo Bombers (1983)

“We”ll fix you up with a parachute.”

The marvellous 1983 Soviet film, Torpedo Bombers (Torpedonostsy), from director Semyon Aronovitch is a homage to the Soviet pilots and crews who lost their lives during WWII in their fight against Germany. For the film’s intense look at the lives of these men, Torpedo Bombers is a unique film, and the cinematography of shots of the men in their planes is simply incredible.  Brilliant, stunning shots depict the planes’ navigators in close quarters; other shots depict planes in flames–one in a kamikaze dive in a last-ditch effort to destroy the enemy. Other close-ups show faces inside smoking planes, and then shots of a plane disintegrating and falling from the sky. The Soviet planes must fly in close to drop their torpedos, so these missions tend to have a suicidal edge. This incredible film is based on the stories of Yuri German.

It’s 1944, and the film opens with the report of a “fascist convoy” in the area, so crews scrambles, planes are prepared and then take to the skies. Some shots give us an idea of the rudimentary nature of life on the base, and many of the pilots and crews have their families there with them. There’s a downside to this which becomes evident as the film continues.

Torpedo Bombers throws us right into the action, so the story can be a bit disorienting at first until you get your bearings. Many characters are introduced summarily through barked out orders, or called out greetings, and it’s not initially easy to place just who’s who. The relationships between the ranks seems casual and friendly. There’s the sense that life on the base wouldn’t be bad at all–if it weren’t for the threat of imminent death. As one man says, “Life could be so simple, so pleasant. War is so ugly.”

While the plot explores aspects of the lives of a handful of characters, the main story revolves around Sasha Belobrov (Rodion Nahapetov) who’s just returned from 3 months leave after being injured. He returns back to the remote Northern base to discover that the woman he loved has married another man. Another sub-plot concerns Sgt  Cherepets (Aleksei Zharkov), a man who falls in love with a kitchen worker named Maroussia (Tatyana Kravchenko) but is uncertain just how to approach her.

Torpedo Bombers shows the men at home on the base and at war, and of course we follow their stories to their conclusions. In one scene Soviet crew members investigate a downed Messerschmitt only to discover the pilot dead and frozen while his thermos of coffee still steams when opened.  Another scene depicts the men attending a theatre performance conducted entirely by midgets, and when the acting troupe leaves and the pilots & crew members thank them, it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion about just where these midgets would be if Hitler ever got hold of them. No heavy-handed conclusions are necessary from the plot, but these scenes grant humanity to the Soviet cause.

Real black and white footage from WWII is seamlessly spliced together with the created scenes.  We see grainy archival black and white footage of German ships firing at the sky, and then these scenes are juxtaposed with the Soviet flyers. While a large portion of the film concentrates on the air war, a substantial portion of the film concerns the men’s private lives: one man is reunited with his mentally traumatized son who was thought to be lost, but there’s no news of the pilot’s wife and baby. The boy was located in an orphanage, and the father begins to question whether the boy is indeed his son. Belobrov’s opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter: here’s a boy who needs a father and a man who needs a son. This aspect of the film underscores the social upheaval afoot inside the Soviet Union with millions dead and missing, and those left behind trying to enjoy whatever time they have left.

Another subtle idea within the film examines the role that women play as supporters for the Soviet pilots and crews. There’s tremendous pressure on them to have sex. One woman’s husband is killed and there’s substantial social pressure for her to pick up with Belobrov. No one seems to appreciate the fact that she’s pushed to the brink by the death of a husband, and may be too fragile to get involved again in a relationship with another pilot who’s very likely to die.

The film concludes with a photo library of real torpedo bombers who died in WWII.

Torpedo Bombers is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema Series.

4 Comments

Filed under (Anti) War, Russian, Soviet

Dostoevsky (2010)

“I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos.”

Dostoevsky is a 2010 8 episode mini-series made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you’re into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn’t begin with the start of Dostoevsky’s life, but rather it begins as he’s about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky’s life–not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can’t think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point, the action segues usually from memory. Here’s some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky’s mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile &  imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian Army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia and his love affair with Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St Petersburg 1959: his troubled marriage to Maria, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Maria , his passionate affair with Apollinaria Suslov (Polyina), closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at casino, public reading of Insulted and humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polyina,  follows her to Paris. Goes to Baden- Baden–the death of Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail–the death of Maria.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with publisher that he’ll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he’s yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses the publisher has all rights to anything  Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all or nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna. Baden-Baden 1867. Meets and argues with Turgenev. Anna gives birth to first child

8) Dostoevsky’s family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Maria, for example, long  outlived any emotional attachment, his second marriage gave him some emotional stability, and his affairs drove him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky’s complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeon-hole his intricate beliefs & his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn’t delve into the production of Dostoevsky’s great novels, and that’s a bit disappointing, and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships, and his struggles with poverty (at one point for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life.  We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there’s no background to that hobby, it’s a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky’s life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life.  The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky’s ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder–not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few roubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world. 

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes: Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden. His pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he’s trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he’s down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky’s mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky’s brain–simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow–as he reevaluates Anna.  Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There’s also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: “Pasha, this is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, You should be ashamed of stupidity.” Finally one of the film’s most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin’s The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky’s new stenographer and future wife shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky’s eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don’t know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can’t work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky’s life–often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance, and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky’s hard labour in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained, day after day, are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia.  Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky’s life and work, and that’s no small achievement. This really is a marvellous bio-pic. Grab it if you find it.

1 Comment

Filed under Russian

Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad (2010) Iron Lord

I die with the sword in my hand.”

As a fan of Russian cinema, I took a chance on the 2010 film Iron Lord (Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad) from director Dmitri Korobkin. Apart from a short youtube clip, I had no way of gauging whether or not the DVD was worth the purchase, and it’s not available, at least at the time of this post, for rent. These low budget historical/adventure films often end up cheesy, but I was surprised to find that Iron Lord was an entertaining film–not too heavy on gore– despite its historical and war-like setting.

The film begins with a rapid explanation which sets its story in its historical context. It’s the beginning of the 11th century. Grand Prince Vladimir rules in Kiev, and it’s been two decades since he brought Christianity to Russia. His sons rule different areas of the land, and collect tribute from their respective regions–some of which is sent to Kiev. Vladimir’s youngest son Yaroslav (Alexsandr Ivashkevich), oversees the most eastern section and rules in Rostov. There’s a  problem collecting tributes, however, mainly due to the intervention of brigands who also harvest slaves from the local tribes. When the film begins, Yaroslav sets out to collect his tribute only to run right into a band of brigands and their latest haul as they head along the Volga trade route.

Yaroslav and his men, including the mercenary Berserker viking, Harald (Aleksey Kravchenko) take a stand against the brigands which results in the decimation of a pagan shrine of the Bear tribe. Following the attack, Yaroslav reasons that the region will not be safe unless he builds a fort there and offers protection to the local tribes–you can’t after all expect regular tribute payments if those who owe it are being hauled off into slavery. As Yaroslav and his men continue their journey, they capture a woman, Raida (Svetlana Chuikina), the daughter of the chief of the Bear tribe,  Yaroslav decide to return her to her village….

Meanwhile back in Rostov, Prince Sviatozar (Viktor Verzhbitskiy) waits for Yaroslav to return to marry his daughter, Princess Zhelanna, but with each increasing success of the brigands, he begins to suspect that there’s a traitor in their midst….

Skullduggery, battles and even a couple of romances vie for screen time in a film which has very little down time. In spite of the fact the warriors use axes, swords, bows and arrows, and various other pieces of crude weaponry, there’s surprisingly little gore, and the few torture scenes are not overdone–perhaps this is due to the fact that everything is very basic. No iron maidens here–although there is a one mention of a rack, but torture is relegated mostly off-screen. In one torture scene, one poor devil is tortured with a stone removed from the fire, while outside children play with stones, halting their game to listen to the screams.  Scenes show life in Rostov and also in the Bear pagan village which is a nest of traps, underground tunnels, and an enormous grizzly bear who is the manifestaion of their god, Veles. The director seems to use a low-budget handicap to good results. Consequently he succeeds in conveying the crude realism and casual violence of the times; I was ambushed by a couple of the plot developments, and that’s always a good thing.

It isn’t particularly easy to identify the different camps (brigands, the Varangian army, etc) as a title announcing the location of a scene comes on the screen in Russian, so it’s important to keep on your toes for this one, or you’ll miss some of the action. The DVD cover states that this adventure tale is based on a true story, and it is true that Prince Yaroslav united Russia and established the town of Yaroslavl on the Volga.

2 Comments

Filed under Russian

And They Woke Up In The Morning (2003)

“Siberian people are required to be examined–they are so wacky.”

And They Woke Up In the Morning (I’ve also seen the film called And in the Morning They Woke Up), is a Russian comedy from director Sergei Nikoneko. The film, based on the novel by Vasili Shukshin, explores the-morning-after-the-night-before through the sorry tales of drunkenness told by eight inmates of a detox centre. The men wake up with hangovers in a communal-type ward, and there’s the unspoken idea that for most of the men, this is a frequent event. Some of the men remember all too well what they did; some have a partial version of events, and some of them have no idea whatsoever what about what happened. If this sounds like great comic material to you, then you probably won’t be disappointed.

Since the film involves eight different stories about just how these men ended up in a detox centre, the film’s structure is very straightforward. While the story’s top layer concerns itself with what these men actually did, there’s a second layer of drama here as the men interact with one another and very quickly establish a social hierarchy. The film begins with the cell bully, Urka (Sergei Garmash) telling  a first-time offender (Yevgeni Stychkin) that he killed someone. Eventually what happened is revealed and this has to be one of the funniest scenes in the film. In one story, a man (Igor Bochkin) takes his daughter to the supermarket and doesn’t understand why he meets with such hostility–until his past actions are explained to him. Another man is arrested for drunk driving a tractor.  

Most of the men’s wild stories of drunkness and bad behaviour build in terms of social transgression, but the last few stories fell just a little flat. That was unfortunate, but overall the film was really funny (I laughed in the film’s opening scene) and it’s well-worth catching if you’re interested in Russian film.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Russian

Schizo (2004)

There are some films that put our problems into perspective, and Schizo, a 2004  film about poverty and survival from director Gulshat Omarova does exactly that. The film has a couple of other titles, Fifty-Fifty and The Recruiter. I’d prefer either of those over Schizo–although my copy comes with that title.

Schizo, which is written by the director in collaboration with Russian powerhouse director Sergei Bodrov, is a Russian language film set in Kazakhstan. The Schizo of the title is Mustafa, a fifteen-year-old boy (Oldzhas Nusupbayev) who is seen immediately as a problem teen. He’s been expelled from school (that’s where the nickname Schizo comes in), and he has a doctor’s appointment (with his mother in attendance) to determine just what the problem is. While the appointment is, ostensibly to find out just what’s ‘wrong’ with this teenage boy, the incident that led to his expulsion from school and the doctor’s (Viktor Sukhorukov) subsequent diagnosis all seem unfair. After all, while Schizo may seem slow, who’s to say at this point just how much is due to his social deprivation. The scenes in the doctor’s office are unforgettable. How many of us have tried paying our doctors with a jar of sour cream and a bag full of eggs?

Schizo lives with his mother and her sleazy boyfriend Sakura (Eduard Tabishev). Their home looks like a makeshift-lean-to, but as the film continues, it’s easy to see that Schizo lives in positive luxury when compared to most of the other locals.

There appears to be an age discrepancy between Schizo’s mother and her boyfriend, Sakura, but that may be due to the fact that she’s led a harsh life and Sakura is more-or-less loafing around. Sakura does make money, however, through arranging illegal boxing matches. Sakura, who doesn’t like to take risks, floats Schizo in front to do the actual recruiting of day-labourers and anyone else desperate or hungry enough to risk being beaten to death for a relatively small amount of money. The fights are organised by gangsters and held in what appears to be an abandoned building. Severely beaten fighters are left to die in empty rooms.

Schizo is a fascinating character who’s seriously, and as it turns out dangerously, underestimated. The name “Schizo” is one of the cruel nicknames given to the teen by classmates, and everyone writes him off as retarded. Not a PC term these days, but this is how everyone acts towards Schizo. They do and say things in front of him that they assume he can’t compute. Big mistake. Fate and a kept promise takes him to the shack of Zinka (Olga Landina). It’s a lesson in humility to see how these people live. While Zinka lives in squalor, she rents the shack she lives in from a landlord, and she’s behind on the rent….

While Schizo is not a particularly appealing character, I found myself cheering him on as he comes up against some nasty gangsters. There are some marvellous scenes here which illustrate the harshness of life in Kazakstan, and just how far these tough people will go to survive. The scenes depict a country so poor, it’s almost impossible to contemplate anyone employing people for meaningful work, and one of the most telling factors of poverty is the conditions in which people live. Schizo’s uncle lives in what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated Noah’s Ark of a boat. No toilet, no running water, no electricity, but it offers shelter and indeed some measure of security. Other scenes depict locals stripping telephone wires. The wires have been dormant for years, so there’s no fear of electrocution but their abandoned presence raises many questions about what the hell happened to Kazakhstan.

2 Comments

Filed under Russian