Dir: Aleksey Chupov, Natasha Merkulova | Cast: Yuriy Borisov, Timofey Tribuntsev, Aleksandr Yatsenko | USSR Drama 120′
A muscular yet strangely poetic drama suffused with human emotion by Russian directing duo Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkalova whose feature The Man Who Surprised Everyone, did just that.
Classically styled and set against the backdrop of the 1938 political persecutions – the colour red serving as a thematic touchstone for Soviet ideals of valour, sportsmanship and nationalistic allegiance – it stars man of the moment Yuriy Borisov fresh from his triumphs in Cannes with Compartment Number 6.
He plays Fyodor a hard-boiled, weightlifting law-enforcer in a Russia pulsating with subversive wartime undercurrents where cowing-towing to the Soviet system is the only way to go. But when Fyodor sees his peers being interrogated by the authorities he decides to abscond. Once on the run (to rousing sounds of ‘The Russian Red Army’ and a propulsive electronic score) Fodor is hotly pursued by his wiry, tuberculosis ridden superior Golovnya (Tribuntsev), haunted by the past as it plays out in a series of haunting hallucinatory sequences featuring his old comrades. So he decides to return as surreptitiously as possible while surrounded by a seething climate of savage mistrust.
Immaculate lensing by ace Estonian cinematographer Mart Taniel makes this a visually captivating as well as thrilling with its storyline that tracks Fodor’s evasion from his steely band of brothers with a pervasive feeling of danger and gritty authentic characters who feel real in their struggle to survive against the odds in a climate of fear and suspicion that forces them to root for themselves while keeping their backs against wall in their putative allegiance to the state. That said, the few female characters are seen as weak and febrile, the men physically and emotionally rigorous.
Powered forward but some really shocking violence: an execution scene is one of the most starling: a state employee priding himself by dispatching his firing squad victims with just one shot; in another a little girl recounts how her father was tortured by Spanish Fascists and then Russian Communists, the latter the more affective in sending him to him to his grisly death. Unorthodox weapons come in all shapes and sizes – an old fashioned telephone proving an effective stunning device. But the harsh brutality is tempered by some potently transcendent moments that Andrey Konchalovskiy or Tarkovskiy would be proud of: an enormous red zeppelin glides by silently framed between two buildings; a wild dog scampers along joyfully in the morning mist, and an emaciated man breathes his last moments of life cradled in Volkonogov’s tender embrace. MT
Venice Film Festival | 1 – 11 September 2021 | COMPETITION