by Ola Salwa
- VENICE 2021: Oleh Sentsov’s new film, following last year’s Numbers, is a good marriage of gangster flick and drama
In his new film, Rhino [+see also:
film profile], Ukrainian helmer Oleh Sentsov, who was imprisoned for years by the Russian government, talks about a different form of entrapment. His previous oeuvre, Numbers [+see also:
interview: Oleg Sentsov
film profile], presented at the 2020 Berlinale, was set in the metaphorical space of a theatre stage and also revolved around oppression, but Rhino, which has just had its world premiere in Venice’s Orizzonti section, is closer to real life and its ugly underbelly. It would be yet another simple gangster story, if it weren’t for the poetic cinematography in the first chapter of the movie, the strong performance by newcomer Serhii Filimonov and the director’s choice to contextualise Rhino’s life amidst the social and political changes that swept through the Communist Bloc in the 1980s and 1990s, which included Ukraine, among many other countries. Its appealing storytelling and the density of its on-screen world make it an interesting watch, but these elements also enable us to understand the psyche of Homo Sovieticus turned “Homo Capitalisticus”.
Rhino starts off in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was being dismantled, yet still wielded control over its citizens’ daily life. We meet Rhino, whose official first name is Vova (short for Vladimir, very popular among Russian men in positions of power in the last century), when he is a kid, being bullied by his peers. By accident, he pokes one boy’s eye out, which then becomes his response to a lot of his experiences later in life: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Vova returns home, where, in a poetic master shot – echoing Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, and enhanced in post-production, but nevertheless impressive – his early years are recounted.
Rhino grows up in a modest family – his father spends most of Vova’s life in prison, his older brother is serving in Afghanistan, his sister marries very young, and there is always a little too much vodka around. When perestroika takes over the Soviet Union, the so-called wild capitalism takes over the streets of Vova’s small town, as he and his gangster persona, Rhino, become a metaphor for this “new deal”. He and his band of thug associates roam the streets, collecting debts and serving the local mafia’s godfather. But beneath all the crimes he commits, Rhino hides a soft, Slavic soul, and makes lengthy confessions to mysterious man in a car. This element of the film is a tad troublesome, but serves the director’s purpose of showing the human part of Rhino and presenting him as both a beneficiary of the new era and a victim of it. But then again, aren’t we all?
Rhino was produced by Ukraine’s Arthouse Traffic and Cry Cinema, and was co-produced by Poland’s Apple Film Production and German outfit ma.ja.de Fiction. Its world sales are handled by WestEnd Films.
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