Review: Captain Volkonogov Escaped
by David Katz
- VENICE 2021: Rising young Russian actor Yuriy Borisov plays the titular escaped captain in Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova’s thriller set amidst Stalin’s Great Purge
A Stalin-era political thriller with the sober intensity of a Bourne film, Captain Volkonogov Escaped [+see also:
film profile] questions whether the clear conscience of one part of a totalitarian regime can help exonerate it in any fashion. A well-equipped long arm of the Soviet law, the eponymous National Security Service captain develops a crisis of faith to the cause, and his escape and breaching of state secrecy trigger a fierce manhunt across Leningrad. But any dream of “escape” quickly appears to be wishful thinking, as he comes to resemble a mouse circling the same narrow corners of a shoebox. This passionately made, but sometimes laborious, film by co-directors Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova has debuted in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
This feature, given its harrowing political subject matter and our typical expectations of Russian auteur cinema, has an oddly fleet, matter-of-fact feel, as if it’s already courting an audience of impatient streaming-platform viewers (indeed, exceptfor their eccentric and very interesting Venice breakthrough, The Man Who Surprised Everyone [+see also:
film profile], the directors have mainly worked in television). Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov, the young but imposing actor who shone this year in the Cannes entries Compartment No. 6 [+see also:
interview: Juho Kuosmanen
film profile] and Petrov’s Flu [+see also:
film profile]) is making banal small talk about a certain type of canteen berry juice with his colleague Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin, sweet and sensitive); clearly, a plan is brewing, and a routine pit stop for berry-juice refills is a cover for something else. Then, like he’s nailing an audition for a role in All the President’s Men or The Post, Volkonogov presses determinedly down a dust-choked corridor with a bulging office file in hand, and stashes it in a little gap in a staircase.
Volkonogov has departed from the scene – he is nowhere to be found in his official quarters or the officers’ mess. Upon retrieving the document later in the first act, in a surreptitious way, we see his endgame. Hundreds of citizens who have been arrested and apparently sent to labour camps have actually been summarily murdered, and Volkonogov (whose first name is pointedly “Fyodor”, like the author) wants to expose the cover-up and bring justice. The next of kin, of all the cases he oversaw, are visited – from laundry workers to medical professionals – and given the bare truth, and we realise his mission is a fanatical, honourable piece of vigilantism. Still, Chupov and Merkulova’s storytelling deftly points out the limitations and arguable self-centredness of this crusade.
In short, Volkonogov thinks he’s like the selfless bureaucrat hero of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, when in actual fact, he’s lost in a purgatory that will gradually strip him of all heroism. In a repetition of the metaphysical stakes of the directors’ prior film, an emissary from hell appears in a vision, rallying him to ask for forgiveness from the people he failed in his official capacity; when he breaks the yet-more-awful news to them, can you blame the recipients for not blessing his soul?
A sub-plot attempting to make the official leading the manhunt, Major Govnya (Timofey Tribuntsev), seem sympathetic and sensitive backfires into mawkishness. As the running time lopes on and Volkonogov’s cause gets stuck in hapless repetition, the apparent present-day resonance of this historical parable feels lost to time.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a co-production between Russia, France and Estonia. It was staged by Place of Power and Lookfilm. The co-producers are Homeless Bob Productions and Kinovista. The film is sold internationally by Memento International.
Photogallery 21/11/2021: Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2021 - Captain Volkonogov Escaped
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