Young Critics Review: Captain Volkonogov Escaped

KVB 01 33 20 14 Still045 1
Recensie 20 okt 2021
Tijdens de Young Critics Workshop (12 – 23 oktober 2021) op Film Fest Gent schrijven vijf aspirant-filmcritici (18-26 jaar) uit België en het buitenland recensies over onze festivalfilms. De workshop verloopt volledig in het Engels, dus ook de recensies zijn Engelstalig.

Every punishment must have a crime

Violence, Vantablack humour and questionable ethical choices constitute the Holy Trinity propelling the plot of Captain Volkonogov Escaped, a tightly-constructed drama/thriller about a National Security Service captain trying to “gamify” his ascendance to Heaven. Directed by Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, the movie meets most of the success criteria for (commercial) contemporary cinema of its genre: unscrupulous characters, fast-paced action and stylized cinematography. However, Captain Volkonogov Escaped rises above the basic template, screaming for the viewer’s attention for its 126-minute runtime. Set in a late 1930s Soviet city (never explicitly named, but reminiscent of Leningrad), the film’s historical references act as a launching pad for a story arc so wild it just might feel relatable to the average audience member. Narratively, Captain Volkonogov Escaped resembles Dante Alighieri’s trip through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, with the only difference that Volkonogov works his way up via fists and a tunnel-vision thirst for “forgiveness points”, unlike Dante’s intellectual conversations with the three planes’ inhabitants.

Fueled by mindless patriotism and testosterone-induced forced-feedback loops only possible in an environment as oppressive as the (para)military forces, the movie closely follows Captain Volkonogov’s escape from the clutches of the National Security Service, trying to “clean up” their ranks after an internal re-evaluation. Perceiving the forgiveness of the relatives of the “unreliable elements” that NSS has tortured into incrimination and death as a sure-way ticket to Heaven, Volkonogov visits many of them in a vain attempt to calm his own tormented conscience. As the Captain’s plot armour grows (predictably) thicker, the intensity of his PTSD flashbacks increases—this is how the audience meets young Volkonogov, working to gain his superiors’ favour by taking “preventative action against potential enemies”, thus marching away from empathy. The Captain’s personal development arc would be hard to believe, if not for Yuriy Borisov’s incredibly nuanced acting, ranging from an almost whimsical lightness to an effortless psychopath-like emptiness. Opposite of him, Veretennikov (Volkonogov’s best friend and, later on, metaphorical Virgil—played by Nikita Kukushkin) feels like a one-dimensional caricature of a soldier used to add sentimental and hallucinatory elements to the relatively straightforward story.

To counter-balance the simplicity of the narrative, Merkulova and Chupov use every single shock-inducing method available. The camera bounces from unstable hand-held shots following the characters, to wide frames accentuating gory set details, to emotional close-ups of Volkonogov and the rest of the cast. Mart Taniel’s diverse cinematography is further amplified by the consistent use of the human body as a story-telling vessel. Bodies are beaten, caressed, contorted, washed, tied, touched and cut on-screen with such frequency that they quickly become key visual symbols within the film’s world. Heightening the brutal, yet captivating atmosphere, several renditions of a haunting Russian folk song pierce the story at important turning points.

Drowning in bright red, Captain Volkonogov Escaped doesn’t shy away from stomach-turning images and ideas. Similar to Dante, Volkonogov pushes forward and up with Heaven as his final destination—only to reach the stunning clouds and finally understand he belongs in Hell. Worn down by the wicked game of empty catchphrases and long-lost moral values, he decides to abort the mission. Unlike Dante who lives to receive knowledge no other human has ever reached, Captain Volkonogov simply… escapes.

J Gjorgjiovska photo

Jovana Gjorgjiovska

Jovana Gjorgjiovska

As a psychologist and researcher by day, a film and theatre critic by night, I’m infinitely curious about the human psyche and continuously drawn toward critical thinking for a simple reason: just like a kaleidoscope, everything in life (and in art) depends on your perspective. I started publishing my film and theatre reviews in 2012 and promptly became aware of the lack of mentorship opportunities in North Macedonia. This led me to co-found, the only online platform devoted to film and theatre criticism in the country, focused on mentoring young writers.

Cinephiliac Moment

Whenever I’m asked about my “favourite” something (it being anything, from a country to a type of food), my default answer is “I don’t believe in the concept of having favourites”. Sometimes I follow this up with a philosophical explanation of my stance: having a favourite, for me, implies that I have had the opportunity to sample all the available varieties of the subject in question, which is simply not possible, for obvious reasons. Other times (such as now) I will vaguely answer the question by mentioning a specific experience that has piqued my interest lately.

While re-watching the original Ghost in the Shell (directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995) for the umpteenth time last summer, my thoughts lingered on the question: what does it mean to be human, especially in the middle of a global (health and economic) crisis? The multilayered anime suggests a fundamental, yet often overlooked answer: connecting with other people, regardless of the physical boundaries of our everyday lives. A well-thought-out synecdoche of the movie is the melancholic boat scene, which brilliantly encapsulates the “ghost” in this cinematic “shell”. Each time I hear Motoko’s ghost saying "What We See Now Is Like A Dim Image In A Mirror. Then We Shall See Face To Face", a cycle of deep self-reflection starts anew.

Top three anticipated FFG Films

When attending a festival, my strategy usually consists of three steps: 1) temporarily ‘forgetting’ everything I know about certain films, directors, actors, etc.; 2) watching as many films as humanly possible, without any expectations or preconceived notions; and 3) “remembering” my previously forgotten knowledge and analyzing the watched movies in a wider socio-political and historical context. This year is special because I haven’t been to an international film festival since the COVID-19 crisis started and I’m super excited about attending the Film Fest Ghent. That being said, I’m looking forward to seeing: Bergman Island (2021) by Mia Hansen-Løve, Captain Volkonogov Escaped (2021) by Natasha Merkulova & Aleksey Chupov and The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021) by Jafar Panahi, Dominga Sotomayor, Malik Vitthal, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Laura Poitras & Anthony Chen.