Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The war in Chechnya has often been described as Russia’s Vietnam and if Aleksei Uchitel’s visceral, atmospheric film is anything to go by, it’s just as brutal and chaotic – and having just as much impact on the nation’s cultural conscience.

The depiction of young, brutalised soldiers forced to fight far from home in a conflict about which they know little and care less is identical – but the setting couldn’t be more different. Here the landscape is forests, mountains and ravines, shot in muted autumnal hues.

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The soldiers of both sides blend into this background, an amorphous mass in which it’s hard to discern individuals or even which side is which. The sense of a beautiful yet hostile landscape is one which the film shares with Russian cinema of the Second World War, particularly Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come And See (still, for my money, the greatest war film ever made).

Uchitel’s film is on a much smaller scale, deliberately focusing on one unit of soldiers, cut off from their main command and engaging in frantic yet pointless skirmishes with the Chechen partisans. The main purpose seems to be to terrorise the enemy with weapons ranging from helicopters and artillery to packs of dogs, goaded into savagery by their handlers, and gain prisoners to use as hostages or guides.

Trying to keep their heads down and get through all this are two soldiers in particular; the older, more experienced Rubakha (Vyacheslav Krikunov) and Vovka (Pyotr Logachev), a lippy young livewire first encountered enjoying a brief liaison with a local girl and foraging a bottle of vodka. After a jittery, confused prisoner-taking engagement (brilliantly shot on hand-held camera) they emerge with a handsome young Chechen, Djamal (Irakli Mskhalaia) in tow and are ordered to use him as guide to make contact with the main force.

Vovka is scornful and insulting towards their charge but as they set off through the wild terrain (the Ukraine standing in for Chechnya) Rubakha forms more of a bond with him. The film plays down the homoerotic element of Makanin’s original short story, with the two men’s relationship being more akin to that of a surrogate father/son. Rubakha tends Djamal’s wounds and forages warm clothing for him, even after he tries to escape and after the trio have witnessed a captive Russian soldier being tortured in a Chechen-held village.

Vovka’s opinion of their prisoner gradually softens, too. But the war is ever-present and as the men near the end of their journey it seems inevitable that they will become enemies again...

This is certainly no easy watch. What humour there is falls squarely into the bleak, black Good Soldier Schweik category, as the ordinary squaddies try to avoid hard duty and irritating officers in favour of searching for a dry place to sleep or a tin of hot stew. They are deliberately hyped up and brutalised by their commanders, conditioned to regard the Chechens as animals, despite the hospitality they receive from the villagers. The opposition certainly aren’t whitewashed, however. Uchitel portrays them as just as brutal and determined as the Russians, but with the age-old added advantage that it’s their country; they know it better and they’re more prepared to die for it.

The attempts of the three protagonists to find a common humanity in all this are all the more poignant for being ultimately doomed. But a bleak climax is followed by an enigmatic coda.

It’s a film with no glib answers, and really no points which haven’t been made before. Sometimes it sacrifices narrative drive to build up atmosphere, so that even a short running time has longeurs. In fact, there’s a sense that Uchitel is dying to expand his story into a real epic. Characters (such as Vovka’s local girlfriend) are established, then disappear and the broader picture of the war (senior Russian officers organising arms deals with Chechen warlords over tea and vodka) is hinted at but never fully explored.

Perhaps that’s the point, to keep the audience as disoriented and semi-informed as the soldiers themselves. But Uchitel shows enough directorial flourishes to make me think he could certainly handle a broader cinematic canvas. And that the Chechen war – as squalid and wasteful as any, but with the added irony that the two sides are more like each other than they would care to admit – deserves one.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2008
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Two Russian soldiers force a Chechen prisoner to act as guide – and begin to develop a bond with him.

Director: Aleksei Uchitel

Writer: Timofei Dekin, Vladimir Makanin

Starring: Vyacheslav Krikunov, Pyotr Logachev, Irakli Mskhalaia, Yulia Peresild, Sergei Umanov, Andrei Feskov, Tagir Rahimov, Dagun Omayev, Raisa Gichaeva, Larisa Shamsadova, Svetlana Dorokhina

Year: 2008

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Russia, Bulgaria


London 2008

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Come And See