Director: Yuri Bykov
Writer: Yuri Bykov
Stars: Sergei Belyayev, Aleksei Komashko, Denis Shvedov
Iurii Bykov debuted at the 21st Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr in 2009 in the shorts competition with the film “The Boss” (Nachal’nik), which garnered the main prize and a monetary award of 125,000 roubles. For the young director this success opened the road to big cinema. His next film, To Live, his full-length debut, was co-produced by Aleksei Uchitel’ and made it into the main competition of Kinotavr in 2010.
Both films concern the same theme: how a man acts, who suddenly finds himself under the most ordinary circumstances in an extreme situation. This test situation is dramatic, as it forces the man to act, to reveal his character, and at the same time to bring out the spectator’s attitude towards the protagonist. Thus, the author’s position is deeply hidden, almost drowning in the ambiguity of the situation in which the characters find themselves. The protagonist of the short film starts off with self-defence and ends up with murder; the protagonists of the feature film seek safety in flight, but they have to decide who shoots whom in order to survive. It is, as it were, as in the popular catchphrase about the comma: “execute not pardon”—whether to place the comma after the word “not” or whether to place it after “execute”. A man’s life depends on this comma: to live or to die.
The filmmaker suggests conditions where the spectator himself should place the comma. The spectator, experiencing with the protagonists the peripetiae of an action film’s narrative with shooting, pursuits, and fights, has to decide whom he gives his preference: the executioner or the victim, especially as the characters change their functions several times during the course of the action.
The short film “The Boss” had a single plot twist. The domestic peace at a summer house where a young family—husband, wife and child—rests, is disturbed by two robbers. One of them is a convict, who has spent a term in prison for fight and murder, the other a strayed lad. Holding a knife to the woman’s face, they demand money. The man, an FSB officer, suggests that the robbers clear off “in an amicable way.” The pair continues to threaten the family. When the contriving head of the family takes the initiative, the robbers face his pistol. The Captain takes the guys, tied-up, in a car into the woods. There he kills them, like cattle.
The last frame of the black-and-white film, verified in every single detail in a documentary, investigative manner, captures the meeting of the FSB officer with a lonely mushroom picker, the neighbour of his summer house, who had stopped by the road when he heard a call for help. “Everything’s all right,” the captain says, “I was there. There are no mushrooms there. Over there, (points across the road): don’t go. I have checked it out.” He gets into his car and leaves, having invited his neighbour for supper. The man, having pondered a little, makes his way back home. Weighing the realities of the present day and the unwritten law of morality, the spectator has to decide where the border lies between judgement and self-judgment, between retribution and revenge. For a good reason, the characters of Russian films in recent years have been “cops” and “convicts”, in a skirt or trousers, nice and less so. Filmmakers venture into a sphere which knows no rules. Waking under the pressure of an aggressive environment, the truck-driver-hero of Sergei Loznitsa’s phantasmagorical My Joy (Schast’e moe) snatches a pistol in the finale and shoots everyone who comes his way. The nice villagers of Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Peremirie) scald the leg of a Bashkir gastarbeiter with boiled water, trying to extort where he has hidden the money stolen from an uncle. The Bashkir has hidden the money them in a carcass. The “operation” is led by a policeman, who tries to help “his own”.
Because of the formlessness of life, people bunch; the key question is whether to accept or reject “one’s own” or “another’s.” Then there is bewilderment: who is the “other” if everybody lives in his own system of coordinates, in a situation of total alienation from relatives and friends, let’s say: from ordinary society.
Reviewed by Tat’iana Moskvina-Iashchenko in KinoKultura