Russian art and literature have often gifted the world with antiheroes, characters that find themselves stuck in a limbo that traps them, under the hammer of the torment of their own conscience.
Fyodor Volkonogov is that kind of character. He’s an officer for the security service of the Soviet Union. He’s devoted to his work, respected and admired by colleagues, Kiddo Veretennikov in particular, and superiors. He’s also just witnessed a scene he shouldn’t have been witnessing. On the run from the security, and helped by his friend Kiddo, Fyodor makes his escape. He would probably vanish into thin air if it wasn’t for a terrifying encounter he makes in the middle of the night in a silent Leningrad. This encounter reminds him of his past actions as a state executioner, and of the dangerous roads he must take and lacerating choices he must make. From this moment on, Fyodor, chased down by his nemesis Major Golovyna, sets out on a mission to save his life and, more importantly, his soul.
Directed with courage and visionary power by Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a movie that escapes strict definitions. It is historical, set in 1938 at the beginning of a new five-year plan and right before the beginning of World War II, but it is also a creation of its directors, using the terrifying backdrop of Stalin’s purges to give the film a look that is faithful enough without turning it into a full historical recreation. It is an action thriller, with tense and nerve-wracking sequences, as it is a moral and spiritual story about atonement and redemption. Its deliberate pace, with sudden accelerations in the first half before a clear slowdown in the second one, tracks Volkonogov’s introspective journey from fugitive to soul searcher. Volkonogov, whose first name Fyodor is a cheeky literary reference to master novelist Dostoevskij, so present in spirit in the film, is trying to escape the ghosts of his own past, and has to make amends asking those ghosts and their loved ones for forgiveness. It’s a bleak world around him: Stalin’s Soviet Union is an immense landscape of death, there is no home for hope. The people Volkonogov meets during his journey through his purgatory are devoid of any remnant of life: a woman forced to live inside a morgue or a young child made cynical by the disappearance of her family are manifestations of a country that has lost its soul.
The film’s cinematography becomes the viewer’s eye, witness to the desperation and destruction that dominates the world outside of the eerily grandiose and intimidating Leningrad, whose officers resemble those of a dystopian film, a look particularly fitting given Volkonogov’s work as a torturer of citizens who are accused of crimes that haven’t even been committed (remember Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report?). What kind of atonement can such a man find? When does his purgatory start, and when does it end? Is it a justification for him that he was just a cog in the machine that can ruthlessly turn on its citizens, making them sitting ducks in the game of life? These are the questions that the Captain asks himself.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped succeeds because it dares, from its amped up, almost exaggerated esthetic to its character and plot choices. It tries to find a difficult balance between thriller, moral and spiritual story, and it is often held together by Yuriy Borisov’s sensational performance. Tremendously physical and soulful at once, Borisov gives Volkonogov, a character that is practically impossible to root for, a magnificently quiet desperation, embodying a man who has to face his inhumanity in the difficult road to atonement.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.
Photo courtesy of Biennale Venezia Cinema