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

Shultes
[Shul'tes]

Russia, 2008
Color, 100 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Bakur Bakuradze
Screenplay: Bakur Bakuradze, Nail Malakhova
Cinematography: Marina Gornostaeva, Nikolai Vavilov
Cast: Gela Chitava, Ruslan Grebenkin, Liubov' Firsova, Cecile Plaige, Vadim Suslov
Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov, Iuliia Mishkinene
Production: Film Company STV, Company Salvador D, Limon Studio

Winner of the grand prize at this year’s Kinotavr festival, Shultes provides a stark depiction of human isolation and alienation. It begins with a close-up of its hero, Lesha Shultes, who, after a lengthy silence announces, “I don’t remember.” This one sentence is left to serve as an explanation for much of the behavior of this small-time pickpocket until the closing moments of the film, when the cause of his memory-loss is revealed. Until then we watch as Lesha negotiates his world with a disconnectedness mitigated only by a supreme competence born out of necessity. His relationship with his mother, with whom he lives, consists of uninterestedly watching the television and administering the medicine he shoplifts for her. When he visits his brother, it is to give him money and dodge questions about how he came by it. When he meets Kostia, a preteen pickpocket, it seems like the child might save him from isolation, but their relationship never really moves beyond a business partnership.

In many ways his most meaningful relationship throughout the film is with the notebook he carries with him to note down things he needs to remember. At times, however, this substitute for his memory proves inadequate. Sometimes Lesha can’t remember what he should be looking for and sometimes it is too dark to read. The notebook, despite its faults, provides Lesha with one of his last links to anything deeply personal, as is poignantly demonstrated when, near the end of the film, he refuses to show it to his doctor. As the film’s director, Bakuradze put it, “when we lose our memories we practically lose our connection with the world.”

Even though Shultes is a crime film and there are numerous scenes in which Lesha displays his skill as a pickpocket, this criminal activity takes place in the context of more quotidian activities. Watching Lesha spend his take at the grocery store, for example, gives the impression that theft, for him, is just a job―not unlike the one he applies for at the auto repair shop. Bakuradze has gone so far as to suggest that the function of crime in the film is largely metaphoric, saying that “by stealing objects and stories from other people’s lives, this character fills in the empty cavity of his own ‘destiny”’ that was left by his loss of memory. Despite this downplaying of the criminal aspect of his work, violence does haunt the film and its ending can be seen as an inevitable conformation to the demands of its genre.

In keeping with many recent Russian crime films, the gritty urban periphery of Moscow provides the setting for the film. This landscape of shopping centers and apartment complexes, identical except for the color of the paint stripe in their stairwells, is as emotionless as the hero of the film.

Lesha’s inability to make real connections to those around him is made tangible for the audience by the film’s unsettling construction. The film is filled with lengthy shots, many taken from an unmoving camera, which makes the film seem much more disjointed than it really is—because each episode consists of only one or two shots, the movement from episode to episode ends up being quite jolting. The soundtrack, which is dominated by the ambient noise of the city, also highlights Lesha’s alienation—one potentially emotional moment, for example, is overwhelmed by the churning of the washing machine in his apartment.

Incidental music is also conspicuously absent from the film (even the opening and closing credits are silent), offering added importance to the two instances of music that do occur. Following their first job together, Kostia downloads a ringtone to Lesha’s cell phone: a cheesy pop tune, the chorus of which asks, “Are you Lesha or not?” The rest of the film is punctuated by the tinny cell phone voicing of this existential question, the seriousness of which is constantly being undercut by its source. Music is heard in the film a second time when Lesha breaks into the apartment of a woman he has robbed, but has subsequently seen in the hospital after she suffered an injury to the head. He watches a video she recorded for a lover at the end of which she lip-syncs an English love song, the chorus of which announces “I’ve found the one I’ve waited for.” This moment, mediated by a television and a tape-recorder is, nevertheless a moment of real connection, grounded in the loss shared by both characters—the same loss that through the rest of the film denies Lesha that kind of connection.

Bakur Bakuradze

Bakur Bakuradze was born in 1969 in Tiblisi, Georgia. In 1998 Bakuradze graduated from the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) from the workshop of Marlen Khutsiev. Following his graduation he directed several documentary films and co-directed an award-winning short, Moscow (2007). Shultes is Bakuradze’s first full length feature film.

Filmography:

2008 Shultes
2008 Road of Dreams (documentary)
2007 Moscow (co-directed with Dmitrii Mamulia; short)
2005 The Diamond Way (documentary)
2002 Viacheslav Pilipenko (documentary)
2002 The Age of Minfin (documentary)
2001 At the Cost of One’s Life (documentary)

 

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