17 September 2019

Brat: the film that made me a critical Russophile

Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) in Brat

Before I proceed much further in this Kazakhstani film series I seem to have touched off (and that dates back to the beginning of this blog, come to think of it), I think it’s probably worth going back and revisiting a cult film that left a fairly deep impact on me personally when I first watched it in college – even though it is very much not a Kazakh film. Having recently watched Igla I was inspired to go back and watch this film – one which I have seen before but not yet commented on. If Igla was a præmonition of Trainspotting, as I hinted in my recent piece, then this film was absolutely a deliberate echo of that film.

To demonstrate how deeply this film impacted me, let me just say this. When I was still an Episcopalian, this was one of two films that made me start to sympathise, in a critical and unromantic way, with modern Russia – the other being Kavkazskii plennik. It doubled as one of the sources, along with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, that humanised the Russian people for me and made real to me their plight and desperation during the 1990s under Eltsin. The irony in this, is that despite this very real sympathy, it shows Russia at some of its very worst: violence – including sexual violence; drug abuse; alcoholism; escapist licence of all sorts; naked pursuit of lucre; casual racism; gharbzadegi; the ever-porous boundary (but in 1990s Russia particularly so) between biznes and gangsterism. I am talking, of course, about the low-budget crime thriller Brat by Aleksei Balabanov, starring Sergei Bodrov, Jr.

Brat deserves its place as a classic in Russian cinema, and Balabanov his reputation as a genius for having directed it. The film was shot on a shoestring budget; and the only reason it got off the ground at all was because of Balabanov’s relationships with Sergei Bodrov, Jr and the lead singer of Nautilus, Vyacheslav Butusov – whose music features prominently in the film.

The film follows the tight-lipped Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr), a young demobilised army vet who claims he only ever served at HQ, and whose favourite expression of approval is ‘нормално’. The first time we see him he’s walking onto the set of a Nautilus music video, and gets into a fight with the director and the bouncers which sees him detained and threatened with arrest if he doesn’t shape up and get a job in a week. His disappointed mother, who sees him as a disgrace to the family, tells him to go find a job like his older brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), who lives in Leningrad. Danila, of course, does what he is told by his mother – like a dutiful son would.

Viktor, also known as ‘the Tatar’, is a hitman for a mobster nicknamed Krugly (Sergei Murzin) who talks seemingly only in rhyming clichés. Viktor is tasked with taking out a Chechen rival of Krugly’s, though Krugly dislikes Viktor’s cocky attitude and makes plans to eliminate Viktor at the same time. Viktor, in order to save himself, thrusts the job onto Danila when he arrives. Danila’s subsequent adventures in S. Peterburg see him attempt without success to buy Nautilus’s new album; befriend a homeless German named Hoffman (Yuri Kuznetsov) and a heartlessly-transactional bar-frequenting junkie named Kat (Mariya Zhukova). When carrying out his ‘job’, he is attacked by Krugly’s henchmen and flees in a tram operated by a married woman named Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), with whom he starts up a love affaire. Danila is pulled deeper and deeper into the corruptions and temptations of S. Peterburg, yet despite the brutal acts of self-preservation and temptations he is prone to, he somehow manages to hold onto a certain sense of decency and honour – something which he finds lacking in his entire body of acquaintance (except for the homeless German and Sveta). He also manages to protect the weak and outwit his enemies not only by outgunning them but also by jury-rigging together matchbox flash-bombs, pop-bottle silencers and nail-filled shotgun shells from the various dingy apartments he crashes at.

Storywise, the plot is straightforward almost to a fault; the only digressions are the ones that happen within sight or earshot of the protagonist, and these are usually dealing with the music of Nautilus. And cinematographically, Brat is a very claustrophobic film which clearly was making the best of its limited budget (and possibly making a subtle literary commentary on the setting). Most of the action takes place in cramped, narrow apartment hallways with flickering incandescent lighting. Every window and mirror is dingy. Even Krugly’s headquarters is decked out with a dusty ‘80s IBM sitting in the background, and little else. There are lots of long takes, and the film is paced specifically to deglamourise the violence of its protagonists. Despite a lot of characters being shot to death, the blood effects are minimal and usually kept in a blurry background. Balabanov is also clearly a big fan of fade-to-black transitions, with a lot of the punchlines to various story sequences being left implied.

Brat relies a great deal on filmic symbolism to establish its moral universe. Danila, with whom we are supposed to sympathise, is unassuming in appearance, and dresses in an oversized grey turtleneck sweater. The other young people around him – especially Kat – are decked out in the expressions of Western counterculture of the time: black leather, piercings, eye shadow, mohawks. The people who hold power, like Krugly, are also aficionados of Western styles. Krugly wears Versace and drinks Hennessy. ‘American’ music is associated with drugs and cheap loveless transactional sex; it is compared unfavourably to the healthier and more wholesome Russian-inflected music of Nautilus, which provides the backdrop to Danila’s affaire with Sveta.

It’s also definitely a piece which reflects its time, almost more so than its place. In fact, Brat is a mirror that’s held up to an entire generation of young Russian men caught in a struggling time, for whom Danila Bagrov became something of an instant anti-hero. Danila is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good man’ – this is something that Sergei Bodrov himself has made clear in his interviews, and is voiced in the film itself by Sveta. But despite his weaknesses he possesses a folksy cleverness masqued as gullibility and an innate sense of justice. It’s unclear by the end of the film as he skips town whether or not he has lost his soul entirely – although the German, the sole uncompromised voice of conscience in the film, claims he has.

Balabanov’s Brat made me a critical Russophile, not only in that it showed the depth of the œconomic woes and spiritual degradation of Russia in the lawless ‘90s, but also hailed back to a rich and vibrant literary world in historical Russia. The motif of Leningrad (and which is referred to explicitly with its præ-Communist name of S. Peterburg in the film) as a corrupting influence, an artificial city of masonry ruled by greed, a malevolent force that parasitically feeds off the strength of its residents and makes them weak. S. Peterburg as a character in her own right – that’s pure Dostoevsky.

In short, I would say that Brat is a film one needs to watch, and not only watch but feel, to get an appreciation of how Russia got here as a country. It’s not all about communism and it’s certainly not all about ‘authoritarianism’. There is a real spiritual and material struggle behind modern Russia, that is too often disregarded or sneered at in Anglophone coverage of current events there. The questions Balabanov poses to his viewers are meant to reflect this struggle and the dimension of Russia’s shared life – along cultural, political and œconomic dimensions – that was simply AWOL in the 1990s. Danila Bagrov is a cultural icon and hero for his time precisely because he is flawed, and precisely because he is fallen – but perhaps not irredeemable.

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