Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Scythian (2018) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Do you sometimes yearn for the simple days of cinema hen the best thing in lif was to drive your enemies before you and hear the lamentations of their women? Make no mistake, there are plenty of sword age films still being made today, but most of them are low budget, do irritating things with filters in an attempt to look artsy and end up going straight to VoD. If you want a properly muscular big screen barbarian adventure without the refinement that the Japanese have brought to the genre, you need to look to Russia.
Rustam Mosafir’s skull-splitting steel epic is set on the steppes in an age when countless tribes eked out a fragile existence as horse traders, mercenaries and nomads. It’s not intended to be historically accurate, more interested in the spirit of the age than in accurately depicting such peoples, but it certainly communicates the harshness of such a remote existence and the fierce hierarchies some tribes subscribed to in order to keep order against the odds. Lyutabor (Aleksey Faddeev) is a member of such a tribe – a respected warrior who enjoys the esteem of his king and whose wife Tatyana (Izmaylova Vasilisa) has recently borne him his first child. But when mercenaries kidnap his family in order to try and blackmail him into a treasonous act, Lyutabor must set out on a desperate quest to find them – in the process discovering things he never guessed about himself.
Showing at Fantasia 2018, this thundering tale of betrayal and revenge may have a cheesy premise but it delivers its story with gusto and finds plenty of room for character development between the visceral action scenes. Accompanying Lyutabor on his journey is Kunitsa (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a wiry, wily young man who has grown up as a hostage of the tribe, far from his own people, the Scythians. Although it’s practical for them to travel together, bound by oaths of dubious value, neither man really trusts the other – they just trust the tribes whose territories they must cross less and with good reason.
Mosafir shows unusual (and vital) confidence in capturing the mystical, from assorted tribal rituals to the ancient indigenous belief that a man sufficiently angered can become possessed by the spirit of a bear and acquire some of its characteristics. Essential to this is an understanding of landscape. good use is made of woodland and rock-strewn waterways, but where Mosafir is strongest is in his use of wide open spaces, where excellent sound design contributes to a sense of exposure and uncertainty (and where too many directors let elevated perspectives rob the viewer of all sense of mystery). The film could make more of this – it moves too quickly from one action scene to another when much of its power comes from building atmosphere – but it still packs a punch.
Similar confidence is needed in the central role, and Faddeev delivers. The trick to pulling off this kind of thing is to play it absolutely straight. This also makes room for Kuznetsov to excel as a man with a much more complicated spiritual and internal landscape, and for the chemistry between them to presage the shift in thinking that Lyutabor must eventually undergo.
Making a film like this successfully is a lot harder than most people think, for all that it appears simplistic on the surface. For those who enjoy such work, The Scythian is a rare treat.Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2018