by Emma Helena Čulík
Tamás Tóth (and Aleksandr Bashirov): Wolf / Farkas
reviewed by Emma Helena Čulík© 2008
One of the most interesting things about film is its capacity for ambiguity. In the cinematic world two variants of reality can exist side by side, and instead of jarring against our logic, it sometimes makes much more sense inasmuch as meaning lies in the tension between the two possibilities. And it seems that nowadays we see this perception of the world on the silver screen more and more often, as concrete and prescriptive interpretations of a story (which now can seem clichéd or heavy-handed) are avoided.
Such is the case in Wolf . The film is all about Nikolai Sergeevich. He has been summoned to a remote village to help with a peculiar and terrible situation: local wolves have been massacring—though not devouring—deer, maiming them and leaving them half alive. And so Nikolai Sergeevich comes. Why? Apparently he has a mysterious gift for solving problems, engaging with nature, and communicating with animals. But then, perhaps he doesn't.
From the start of the film, it is suggested that we should doubt his abilities. Events are doubly portrayed: by the images and by the account of the authoritative narrator, as well as by the tension between these two versions, which do not always entirely coincide. Wolf is shot in a mildly documentary style, where our view of the lives of the characters is punctuated by light glances at the bright, snowy surroundings and glittering blue sky. Everything moves at a calm, steady pace, like even strides through the snow. And when Nikolai Sergeevich meets with the villagers, we are shown not only their natural conversations, but also portraits of the elders in their finery. As in so many documentary films, we see similar focuses on the wrinkled, papery skin of the elderly. And as a result of this trickery, convinced as to the film's realism, we are initially inclined to believe what we are told. The gently mocking, ironic narrator, at times dryly sarcastic in his affection (the documentary bubble is burst by his colorful vocabulary and seemingly incongruous slang), informs us that “certain skeptics consider him a shameless drunkard”—and we are given plenty of reason to side with them. After a little drinking session, Nikolai Sergeevich passes out in the snow and has to be thawed out by some muttering local bears of women; and his first port of call upon arriving at the village is, of course, the local “club,” where he consumes vodka by the glassful. He is bundled into the cliché of Russian alcoholism, which can be found in so many films, and here, as it often is, it is treated with humor. But though his drunken ramblings could be dismissed as just that, it seems like there's something in them.
While the frozen Nikolai Sergeevich is returning to this world, we are told that this time he would not give up the ghost. The smiling eyes of his first love, which we see tinged blue, distanced, and long gone, bring him back to the living. What is the point of this? Well, it not only gives him a new dimension and makes us see something sympathetic in him, but also brings the viewpoint closer to him. The film will become not a documentary about wolves massacring deer, nor about villagers, but about this strange and unfortunate man.
The scene where he makes his visit to the “club” is shown not in a detached, cynical mode, but, instead, the gaze of the camera is sympathetic, or at least curious, and it perceives a certain melancholy and world-weariness in his forlorn face. Sunlight penetrates the dusty windows of the club to illuminate his face in parts, and it covers his eyes in such a way that they take on some animal-like quality. Surely these can't be the sighs of an empty charlatan? Or perhaps he is kidding himself, too? If he is a fool, he is not only an urod (a fool) but a iurod (holy fool), noticed from on high and bathed in light from above.
But, Nikolai Sergeevich is not sitting alone. Shots of his face are combined with more distanced views of three other visitors to the club, who sit unmoving, unsympathetic, like bears in the wood, and the waitress, who is typically over made-up and sullen. Here is the cynical view again. But then, why does this “local beauty” stare at him with fascination rather than disdain? How does he later manage to make her spread her fingers wide in passion? There is some sort of charm in him.
And of course, what of the villagers who called him out to their remote corner of the world? They are suffering the serious consequences of wolves viciously attacking their animals, drinking their blood, and leaving them to die a painful, unnecessary death, covered in a blanket of snow. The villagers truly need help and, out of genuine faith, have called him here as their savior.
The narrator, who earlier told us that Nikolai Sergeevich was not to be trusted, later tells us about our hero's past—it seems that he is a native of this area. Apparently, on leaving the village at a young age, he fell seriously ill with a mysterious affliction, but survived it, and from that day forward was blessed with these unusual abilities. And it's true: we see the animals react to him with patience. By the time he goes out to the forest to meet the wolves, we almost believe he is going to achieve something. We know he's a little crazy, we know he's a drunkard, we know he's a bit of a mess… but we sympathize with him because we know that he has loved, because of his gentle behavior with the animals, and because of the passion in his eyes.
When he is preparing to make his fateful journey out into the forest, Nikolai Sergeevich makes his sleigh-driver promise not to talk to him or even to look into his eyes on the way back. And when he does go, we feel a certain chill in the air. Of course we are shown nothing of the meeting, but only his descent to the sleigh. As if waking from a dream, the camera cuts straight to his viewpoint in the bushes. He slides down the hill and gets onto the sleigh without a word. All the way back to the village, we see what he sees, hear only the swishing sleigh moving over the snow and the wind in his ears. It is significant that we do not see his face, and will not see it until later. Perhaps we might have seen some answer in his eyes. But the magic is maintained: we are told nothing.
And so, when he has returned back to the town, and his meeting with the wolves has come to nothing, we feel very let down. From the film we have two versions of the story—what we would like to believe and what we, sadly, are inclined to believe. And, in fact, we do find ourselves rooting for him, hoping (in vain?) that he is gifted and true. The ambiguity surrounding him and his “powers” makes the disappointment in his failure even stronger.
But this ambiguity also has another effect. From the beginning of the film, rumors and stories and hearsay are mentioned, and the mists of uncertainty clouding the action bring it into this realm. The slangy, at times skaz style of the narration, and all the portraits of the village elders make the story into something of a folk phenomenon. As do the gentle gestures towards the supernatural. We are never offered any scientific explanation for the wolves' behavior, and we rather hope not to be given one. If the wolves are vampires, if they really have this peculiar will and have human enough traits to be able to negotiate, then Nikolai Sergeevich is not crazy, he is not a liar, and there is a possibility of connection between man and the unfortunate things that befall him.
The—at times—folklorish style of the film allows it to appeal to a certain something in us. Folklore, fairy tales, and tall tales are related to something buried deep inside every logical, reasonable adult. And if we can return to something pure and childlike, we are open both to his human frailty and to believing events that do not necessarily have to be justified. It is a good setting for the possibility of things moving just outside the boundaries of logic. Folklore has in it a satisfying surrender to one's own impulses, to wishing upon a star, to putting one's faith in the darkness; this is what Nikolai Sergeevich did, and ultimately takes both him and us to a sad end.
The tension between reality and the imaginary, in which this film lies somewhere, acts to make failure even more tragic. Raised expectations, hopes that inch towards fulfillment but never get there, acting on impulses and the sad consequences—all of these things come together to make a portrait of this man. In the end, Nikolai Sergeevich decides that this time he will not run away from his failure. He will stop hiding, trying at all costs to protect himself, and return to the scene. He goes to meet with the deer, to engage with them and the powers around them. And somehow, this time, he is open. He is willing to present himself truthfully. The deer perceive this and some real connection seems to take place: the deer start circling him as a herd and Nikolai Sergeevich is trapped. In this circular movement, something is being stirred up. And all of a sudden, Nikolai Sergeevich falls. He is dead.
We are told that following this, the wolves stopped their murderous attacks and everything went back to normal. He sacrificed himself to save the day. But we feel that the solution was not his death but rather his attitude on returning. Nature demands genuineness. And we get the feeling that this is the first time he has admitted to being wrong and opened himself up. “Not this time...!,” says the narrator. He was full of regrets and we see in his eyes that he did not achieve what he wanted in his life (for example, his poor first love). This was his last chance to do something about it, and it worked.
The whole film is a farewell. Nikolai Sergeevich is tired from the beginning and finally meets his end. The opening of the film has a sequence of deer advancing through the snowy plains. The scene is again permeated with blue, and the camera cuts out and in, taking a step back every time. Where are they going? It feels like the journey home. The film is something of a catharsis; Nikolai Sergeevich's death brings joy to others as it wipes away all the pain of the story's events. One sad man in exchange for nature's balance.
The sad man is played by Aleksandr Bashirov, and is, it has to be said, masterfully drawn. Bashirov co-wrote the script with Tamás Tóth, and it feels almost like he created an ending for the characters he has played throughout his career. From his fresh-faced beginnings in Sergei Solov'ev's films, he has invariably portrayed grotesque, unfortunate, or slightly deranged characters—such as his Major Babakin in Solov'ev's Assa (1987), who spends the entirety of his time on screen drunk or raving; or the creepy Ferdishchenko in Roman Kachanov's Down House (2001); or Bulgakov's Cat, Behemoth, in the 2005 television adaptation of Master and Margarita by Vladimir Bortko; or even as the building superintendent in Oksana Bychkova's Piter FM (2006) . He obviously gets some kind of pleasure from playing perverse, peculiar characters. And, happily enough, the audience gets rather a lot of pleasure from watching him. But this performance is particularly interesting, as the twisted personality so familiar to him here takes on a depth that makes him more than a caricature—sadness emanates from him, and finally his weariness is resolved.
Like Tóth's first film, Children of a Cast-Iron God (Deti chugunnykhh bogov, 1993) this film stands in the snowy plains, it seems timeless, rooted to no particular chronotope, but floating above it somewhere; and we see men trying to make their way through a stormy world. But unlike the first film, which was obscured either by blizzards or clouds of steam, Wolf is clearer. Literally, the snowstorms have been brushed away and we see more clearly into the characters' eyes. This is a Gogolian tragedy of man. He is grotesque, but we see that he might have had potential. He is picked up and played with by a mischievous narrator, and in the end is dropped. This blue and sparkling film is steeped in sadness, but it is a gentle and playful treatment of humanity, disappointment and faith.
Emma Helena Čulík