Aleksandr Veledinskii’s second feature film, Alive, has been recognized as one of the most significant films of 2006. It has won numerous awards, most significantly the award for Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Guild of Cinema Critics at the Kinotavr Film Festival (2006), and for Best Screenplay at the NIKA award ceremony (March 2007). Nonetheless, it has proven difficult for critics to articulate the specific artistic and thematic qualities of the film. Indeed, the very genre of the film is difficult to name (in an interview for the newspaper Novye izvestiia, Veledinskii himself suggested “mystical tragicomedy, optimistic tragedy, a film-journey”). The opening shots suggest a war film, and the protagonist’s identification as soldier remains central to his character throughout. It soon becomes clear, however, that the war itself is peripheral to the main thematic concerns of the film. The difficulty begins when we try to identity those concerns.
The plot of the film follows the path of Kir (Andrei Chadov), a young contract soldier who returns to civilian life after losing his leg in Chechnya. His return to normal life is difficult for several reasons. He is stymied by the corruption that he encounters within the military bureaucracy in the guise of one cynically greedy Major. At the same time, he faces the profound psychological alienation of a war veteran who must adjust to the mundane everyday life of society far from the field of battle. Attempts to reconnect with his mother and girlfriend end in frustration and failure. Within the context of such challenges, the issue of his physical disability fades almost into oblivion. This proliferation of challenges, juxtaposed one with the other, is emblematic for the structure of the film as a whole. Alive touches on several large questions without making any one of them the film’s thematic center of gravity. Veledinskii does not give any final, unambiguous answer to the questions posed implicitly by the film’s title. The audience is left to decide for itself not only the meaning of being “alive,” but the extent to which the wounded Kir is still “alive” at all.
The film is structured around Kir’s significant encounters with old comrades and a new, seemingly random acquaintance. The old comrades come in the form of two of the soldiers who perished while saving Kir’s life in battle. While both the plot and viewer expectations suggest that the ghosts must play the role of guardian angels to the spiritually lost Kir, the light-hearted banter of the two makes clear that they themselves do not know the purpose for which they have come. Furthermore, we never come to understand the quality of the few presumably “special” individuals who along with Kir are able to see the otherwise invisible visitors. Kir’s second major encounter is with a young Russian Orthodox priest, the importance of which is underscored (if not explained) by the casting of Aleksei Chadov, Andrei’s brother, in the role. Veledinskii goes to some length to present Father Sergii as a kind of double of Kir, but the moral transformation experienced by the latter is motivated more by his encounter with the graves of his fallen comrades than by the influence of the young priest. The ambiguity of the final sequence brings to an appropriately open conclusion a film that leaves hanging almost all of the thematic threads that it has spun.
Several critics have noted the “cathartic” nature of Kir’s transformation, in which the only definite “message” of the film is articulated. Catharsis, according to the classical definition, is normally to be located on the side of the audience. This, perhaps, explains the difficulty encountered in trying to analyze the work. Veledinskii has made a film that challenges the audience to provide its own interpretation of the film. A basis for this interpretation, however, is to be found less in the philosophy articulated in the dialogue than in the powerful and contradictory emotional content of Kir’s internal and external conflicts and wanderings.