Tag Archives: poverty & crime

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.

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A Red Bear (2002)

“Sometimes if you love somebody, it’s best to stay away.”

I’ve watched several Argentinean crime films lately, and A Red Bear (Un Oso Rojo) is the best of the bunch. The film has a searing honesty, and while the plot could conceivably allow for sentimentality, the film and its characters wisely veer away from sentiment and instead focus on the harsh realities of poverty in a merciless world.

The film begins with one very short scene depicting home life for Oso (Julio Chavez), his attractive wife Natalia (Soledad Villamil) and their small child Alicia. It’s Alicia’s first birthday but Oso leaves the party behind. He commits a crime which goes horribly wrong, and the next thing you know, he’s in the slammer, and his marriage is over.

Then the film moves forward 7 years. Oso is released and he returns to his old haunts….

The plot elements of A Red Bear are very familiar. The film centres on the return of Oso and his desire to set things right–well the only ‘right’  he is capable of managing. He returns to a crime-riddled suburb of Buenos Aires to find his wife and daughter and also to collect the money owed by fellow crook, Turco (Rene Lavand). After 7  years, the wily Turco doesn’t want to hand over the loot, and he instead he wants Oso to join one last heist. 

The blurb on the DVD cover included some hogwash about Oso trying to stay out of trouble. This doesn’t happen–to get ‘on his feet,’ Oso on his first day out of prison, mugs an affluent-looking young man and leaves him blubbering and begging for mercy. It’s through violence and crime that we see Oso hauling himself up from being a homeless nobody to a man who wants what’s owed.

It’s easy to imagine someone getting out of prison and trying to pick up their life where they left it. Oso does just this. After reconnecting with Turco, Oso looks for his ex-wife, Natalia and his now eight-year-old child. Natalia is remarried to out-of-work labourer Sergio (Luis Machin), a man with a gambling habit. On top of this, Alicia is struggling with reading and she’s falling behind at school. While the teachers advise that Alicia read more books, there are no books in the family’s bare little home, and there’s no money to buy any. It doesn’t take too long for Oso to find out that the marriage has problems, and he is prepared to step in and hold everyone accountable for the responsibilities he left behind 7 years ago.

A Red Bear is an excellent character study that merges into crime–after all, crime is a large aspect of Oso’s life. Julio Chavez’s marvellously understated performance as Oso pulls these two distinctly different parts of this film together while maintaining an intriguing curious distance between Oso’s behaviour and his innermost thoughts. This distance is never breached–hence the film’s lack of sentimentality. It could conceivably be pathetically sad that Oso has his child’s name ‘Alicia’ tattooed on his arm, but it’s also possible to see this as Oso’s rather limited attempt at fatherhood and connecting with a child he will never know. Is the tattoo a heartfelt gesture or some emblem of ownership? The film plays with both possibilities.

It’s impossible to know just what Oso is thinking or what is motivating him, and so some of his actions come as a surprise–both to the viewer and to the other characters. There’s a point in the film when Oso appears to be putting himself in the position of judge and jury of those whose performance he finds less-than-satisfactory, but then there’s a moment when everything changes. A bitter acceptance and a sense of humiliation settles on Oso over the course of three scenes: a scene in which he’s humiliated in front of his daughter, a scene where his employer gives him a gentle warning about staying away from his daughter, and a third scene that takes place between Oso and his ex-wife. Oso seems to veer away from domestic vigilantism towards doing the best he can under the circumstances. Oso’s stoicism gives no clue to his thoughts, but his actions ultimately answer any unspoken questions. Crime sequences are excellently juxtaposed with Alicia singing the Argentinean national anthem and its refrain about the ‘throne of equality.’

From director Adrian Caetano

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