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Boris Akopov’s ‘The Bull’ Why Russia’s latest film about the ‘wild 90s’ is dividing audiences

Source: Meduza
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Boris Akopov’s feature debut Byk (“The Bull”), which won the grand prize at this year’s Kinotavr film festival, finally hit Russian cinemas on August 22. The movie is about Anton Bykov, the head of a small gang who lives outside Moscow, surrounded by the violence and upheaval of Russia’s “wild 90s,” against which Bykov spends the film trying to protect his family. Meduza film critic Anton Dolin looks at why this latest movie about the troubled post-Soviet decade has been a darling at film festivals, and why some view the picture as the alluring portrait of an era, while others see a certain ideological deceit.

“The Bull,” which has its share of enthusiastic fans and fierce critics, is something of a phenomenon. The feature debut of a Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography graduate, produced by the country’s most respected film school, and made with little money without major stars about a complicated issue like the “wild 90s,” this movie has a lot going for it. First, it won a diploma for best debut from the “Cinema Art” jury at Kinotvar, and then it took home the two biggest awards at the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival — best cinematography and best film. Finally, in Karlovy Vary, it won the main prize in the “East of the West” competition for films from the former socialist bloc.

Admittedly, these critical successes aren’t expected to make the film a smash at movie theaters. At the Russian box office, “The Bull” is projected to earn just a modest return, but this hasn’t prevented it from generating headlines and sparking a public debate.

The plot of “The Bull” is hardly original. It follows all the patterns (familiar in both cinema and life), without taking any major detours. It’s set in a district center outside Moscow and filmed in Tver, but the story could have taken place almost anywhere in Russia. Simultaneously imposing and brittle in the role, Yuri Borisov plays Anton Bykov, nicknamed “The Bull.” A veteran and an ex-con, Anton is a former athlete turned small-time gang leader. In a metaphor for the character’s own heartlessness that’s nearly too on the nose, Anton also has heart disease. He is the reluctant head of the family, too, after his father’s death leaves his mother scrambling to make ends meet. Brutal but not without a conscience, Anton does his best to protect his schoolgirl sister, as well as his younger brother, who falls perilously in love with the local beauty, a hairdresser named Tanya (played with both vulgarity and innocence by Stasya Miloslavskaya). Tanya has devised an escape route, and she’s even found a handsome Englishman who’s apparently not averse to marrying her and taking her away. The viewer understands, however, that dreams are unlikely to come true in this place, and a series of disappointments awaits these characters, brought about not just by the film’s dreaded thugs, but also the heroes’ own stupidity and idealism. Loitering in the late 1990s, we find out, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

Film Trailer: Byk / The Bull

“The Bull” has some truly poetic moments, thanks to cinematography by Gleb Filatov, whose camerawork transform some scenes we’d consider repulsive into wondrous visions. The era’s aesthetic promiscuity (especially evident in backwater towns) is reproduced in the film with love and attention, without any hint of ironic dissociation. The movie has carpeted walls, flea markets, shabby furniture, peeling paint, abandoned, overgrown courtyards, industrial ruins, cheap tracksuits, and insufferable “live music” at the best local restaurant. And of course it’s full of dated electronics: video cassettes with German pornography, imported music players, Polaroid cameras, and old-school stereo systems blasting your favorite songs.

The soundtrack is wall-to-wall pop hits from “Kombinaciya” and “Laskovyi Mai,” until out of nowhere there’s suddenly the chorus from the opera “Nabucco” (about Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II exiling the Jews). It fits: Russians in the 1990s were basically an enslaved people dreaming of miraculous salvation. There are also moments when you hear bits of “Swan Lake” — an uneasy sound to anyone who lived through the August Putsch in 1991 (when all radio and television stations broadcast the ballet, in lieu of news coverage). “The Bull” recalls Swan Lake’s myth of a young foolish prince falling into the arms of an evil twin: a duplicitous Odile, not a pure Odette. The film’s characters who dream of a different life are themselves princes, Odiles, and Odettes — they’re naive, sinful, unhappy, and hopelessly cursed.

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The use of Tchaikovsky is no accident. Boris Akopov was born in the same kind of town outside Moscow, his father was a police detective, and he studied at a ballet school, enjoying a good deal of success in this field for some time. He then turned to cinema, but you can still sense ballet’s poise and eccentric combination of idealism and athletic aesthetics in Akopov’s approach to filmmaking. It knocks you off balance and forces you to think.

For some, “The Bull” is entertaining and formalist like a ballet (especially in the scenes depicting a gang fight and, of course, a dance club) and a monument to a romantic era, when you couldn’t tell apart the cops and criminals, and everyone was driven by either base instincts or noble sentiment, but certainly not rational ambitions or calculations. It’s no wonder that Anton raises a toast “to democracy,” adding, “Let everything become free, with no prison bars, no prohibitions, no authorities, and only conscience remains.” In the scene, the crime boss Moisei (played by film and television veteran Igor Savochkin) sensibly objects, saying, “What kind of democracy can you have with a conscience?”

For Akopov’s critics, “The Bull” represents a film adaptation of this maxim — a deceitful movie about how everything bad stayed in the 1990s, before Boris Yeltsin mumbled from the TV screen his magical resignation (“I’m tired, and I’m leaving”), and a totally new, humane era dawned in Russia.

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It’s hard to say if it helps or hinders the film, but Boris Akopov doesn’t seem to have infused “The Bull” with any serious ideological message. Like other new filmmakers of the same generation (consider Darya Zhuk’s “Crystal Swan,” which also features Yuri Borisov, or Kantemir Balagov’s “Closeness”), Akopov is looking back at the decade of his youth in his own way, and trying to understand it through the prism of modernity. Why are the 1990s so vicious but so splendid? Where do Russians get their nostalgia for an era that left so many scars? Is this Stockholm syndrome or a rethinking of the narrative?

The picture’s strength and failing is that it offers no answers to these accursed questions. Instead, “The Bull” tries without fear or reflection to join an already mythic club of films about desperate men with guns in one hand and cell phones in the other — movies and shows like “Brother,” “Brigade,” and “Beamer.” You wonder why all these names start with the letter “B.” It’s as if Russian cinema, in its own failed attempt to understand the recent past, can’t even move past the second letter of the alphabet. 

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Review by Anton Dolin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock