The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

Captive
[Пленный]

Russia and Bulgaria, 2008
Color, 80 minutes
Russian and Chechen with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Uchitel'
Screenplay: Vladimir Makanin with Timofei Dekin
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Leonid Desiatnikov
Cast: Viacheslav Krikunov, Petr Logachev, Iraklii Mskhalaia, Iuliia Peresil'd, Sergei Umanov, Andrei Fes'kov, Tagir Rakhimov, Dagun Omaev, Raisa Gichaeva, Larisa Shamsadova, Svetlana Dorokhina
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel'
Production: Rock Films (Russia) with Camera Studio (Bulgaria)

Aleksei Uchitel'’s latest film, Captive, returns explicitly to the theme of the war in Chechnia, a theme that until recently had been absent from Russian feature films since Aleksei Balabanov’s War (2003). Captive joins Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Aleksandra, both released in 2007, to constitute a small wave of films that return to this theme even as Russia’s political leadership is attempting to bring the military conflict in that region to an official, if not necessarily happy, end. Like these two preceding films, Captive also returns to the war in Chechnia not so much to analyze this conflict in particular, but to use it as a backdrop for the main action of the film, which in each case could plausibly take place in various times and in various places.

The film’s simple plot follows the journey of two Russian soldiers, Rubakhin and Vovka, to rejoin their company, which has been trapped and isolated by the enemy. They are guided in their journey by a young Chechen fighter, whom they have taken captive for this purpose. The film revolves around the relationship that develops among the two Russians and their attractive young prisoner. Their journey comes to a frightening end, at which Rubakhin, the older of the two soldiers, who has developed an affection for his young captive, is forced into making a terrible decision. The cinematography, which captures equally well the cruelty of war and the harsh beauty of the natural mountainous environment, contributes to the power of the film and makes up for the rather sparse and not always continuous plot.

This film recalls in particular the first well-known Russian film about the conflict in the Caucasus. Sergei Bodrov’s film Prisoner of the Mountains (1996) also featured two Russian soldiers and the relationship between them, as well as their encounter with the indigenous mountain population. Both Bodrov and Uchitel' chose to base their films on literary texts: while Uchitel' took a contemporary writer’s short story, Bodrov’s film was inspired by an older literary tradition. Running through Tolstoi back to Lermontov and Pushkin, the 19th-century literary tradition of the “Caucasus captive” involved the story of an erotic encounter between a Russian military man from the nobility and an exotic girl from the Caucasus. In this way, the fraught and complex relationship between two peoples was figured simultaneously as that of ruler and ruled, lover and beloved, male and female, burdened and innocent, the civilized and the savage. All of these elements were represented in Bodrov’s tendentious indictment of Russian imperialism.

Uchitel'’s film differs from Bodrov’s film in that the story’s center of gravity is located much more clearly with the two Russian soldiers. In Captive, they are portrayed as individuals rather than as genre-determined action heroes or as demonstration pieces for a particular ideological standpoint. Rubakhin and Vovka serve neither to glorify war nor to represent an authorial plea for ethnic tolerance and international understanding. They are simply Russian soldiers thrust into a situation in which their individual moral convictions are put to the test. Their behavior is natural and believable.

The plot of the film follows that of Makanin’s literary text reasonably well. Uchitel', however, removes two significant elements from Makanin’s original. The title, “Captive of the Caucasus,” becomes denatured in the film, rendered simply as Captive. Furthermore, the relationship between Rubakhin and his young prisoner, depicted by Makanin in explicitly homoerotic terms, is devoid of the erotic element in the film. What is left is Rubakhin’s clear but mysterious attachment to the Chechen boy, unexplained and inexplicable, leading those viewers who know the literary source to postulate an erotic attraction where Uchitel' specifically did not want one.

The film clearly concentrates more on inner, personal struggles rather than on the political and ideological elements of the military conflict. Many critics would view this emphasis as adding to the artistic quality of the work. It is, however, tempting to view Uchitel'’s excision of the national and erotic elements of Makanin’s story as a desire to depoliticize the film. He erases those very elements that might recall the way in which the Caucasus drama has been embedded in the very fabric of Russian history for over two centuries. Apparently, we are now expected to believe that the war in Chechnia has become a mere historical episode, the background against which conflicts of personal moral values can be played out. At this historical moment, it may be the only way in which this topic can be broached at all.

Captive was awarded the prize for Best Director at the 2008 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Aleksei Uchitel'

Aleksei Uchitel' was born in Leningrad in 1951. In 1975 he graduated from the department of cinematography of the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK). He first made his mark as a documentary filmmaker before turning to feature films in the 1990s. In 1992 he became the artistic director of Rock Films, where he continues to direct and produce feature films. He is the recipient of numerous prizes for his films, and in 2001 was honored with the title “People’s Artist of Russia.”

Selected Filmography:
Note: A complete filmography would include some 20 documentary films dating back to the early 1970s.

2008 Captive
2005 Dreaming of Space
2003 The Stroll
2000 His Wife’s Diary
1995 Giselle’s Mania
1993 Butterfly (documentary)
1990 Lateral Canal (documentary)
1987 Rock (documentary)

 

 

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