Film Text: Russian Hero Surrounded by Zombies and Ghosts

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Film Text: Russian Hero Surrounded by Zombies and Ghosts

American film experts discussed the main Russian thriller of the year

The Columbia University Film Club recently discussed the film Text, the most successful thriller of the year in Russia. The film, directed by Klim Shipenko based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Dmitry Glukhovsky, received several national Golden Eagle awards and other prestigious awards. On the whole, he was positively assessed by Russian film critics, he became one of the leaders of the box office.

The film club was opened with the support of the Harriman Institute, which is part of the structure of Columbia University and is engaged in scientific research in Russia, the republics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Dangerous game

An online discussion on the Zoom platform was held by co-organizers of the film club Mark Lipovetsky, professor at the Faculty of Slavic Languages ​​at Columbia University, and Daria Ezerova, a postdoctoral scholar at the university. The discussion became part of the program on contemporary culture and was dedicated to the topic “New genres of cinema and new media”.

Before the discussion, Daria Ezerova quoted one of the recent interviews of Klim Shipenko, who remarked: “We have many authors, but few directors”. “The last two films by Shipenko, The Kholop and The Text,” said Daria, “became successful in the film distribution, and the first of them set a record of attendance at Russian cinemas after 1991. She stressed that both the public and critics were kind to the film. Daria described “Text” as the first film in Russian cinema, which chose “digital reality” as the main theme.

Still from the film; Text

Ilya Goryunov (Alexander Petrov), a twenty-year-old student of Moscow State University, lives with his mother in Lobny, near Moscow. At the disco, he becomes a victim of police brutality. One of the young ambitious law enforcement officers, Pyotr Khazin (Ivan Yankovsky), plant drugs on him. Ilya is arrested and sent to prison for 7 years. In 2019, after serving time, Ilya returns home, where he learns that his beloved mother died on the eve of his return. The old life is falling apart at the seams. Ilya hatches a plan for revenge on Khazin, following his career and private successes on social networks. Having met with the offender, Ilya enters into hand-to-hand combat with him and accidentally kills him. He dumps the corpse into the manhole, and takes the phone and the pistol for himself..

From this moment on, he begins a new life. Ilya responds to the victim’s text messages and temporarily becomes Khazin for all “contacts”, including mafia partners, bosses, parents and girlfriend (Christina Asmus). Having engaged in a dangerous virtual game, Ilya gets deeper and deeper into organizing a major criminal drug deal with bandits, while simultaneously falling in love with Khazin’s girlfriend in absentia. Ilya’s digital identification with the murdered man tightens the stranglehold on his neck and naturally leads to a tragic ending.

Genre crossroads

“I’m not sure if we have the right to give marks, we are not critics, but representatives of science,” said Nancy Condee, professor of Slavic studies and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh. – It seems to me that we are dealing with a new formation of Russian creators, which is, in fact, unfamiliar to us. Shipenko lived in the United States for several years, then returned to Russia. Glukhovsky left for Israel and returned to Russia a few years later. And not only they went this way (Lipovetsky added the names of Mikhail Idov and Philip Perkon). Do we know them? Do we understand their motivation, do we study their ecosystem? “.

Stephen Norris, professor of history at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio, and director of the Hawighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, also expressed his understanding of the film. He drew attention to three aspects of the story told in the film..

Still from the film; Text

“Firstly, Ilya was born in 1991-92, that is, as a person, he is an absolute product of the post-Soviet era,” Stephen said. – After serving seven years, he was released presumably in 2019, that is, the largest anti-Putin protests and the simultaneous strengthening of authoritarianism passed by him. Secondly, it is important that he studies at the philological faculty of the university, that is, he studies texts. Here we can feel a cross-talk with other texts that our hero receives and sends via his smartphone. And, finally, it is symptomatic that some of the Russian critics considered Ilya to be a kind of answer to Danila, the hero of “Brother”. We can assume that there is an invisible dialogue going on between the two films. The analogies can, of course, be continued. Critics compare the story of Ilya with the heroes of the novels of Dostoevsky and Kafka, as well as with other books and films about doubles and duality “.

“I was pleasantly surprised by this movie,” said Dusty Wilmes, professor of Russian studies at East Caroline University in Greenville, North Carolina. – It is well filmed, very ingenious, so to speak, at the crossroads of the mainstream and the arthouse, this is a kind of art mainstream. Two notable trends can be seen in Russian cinema today. The first is patriotic, action-packed blockbusters, usually of low artistic quality. The second is a highly critical, but difficult for perception, auteur cinema, which, moreover, has practically no audience. “Text” is a rare attempt to combine both of these trends and make the public stare at the screen. “.

The nature of suspense

The panelists disagreed on the genre nature of the film..

Film Text: Russian Hero Surrounded by Zombies and Ghosts
Film Text: Russian Hero Surrounded by Zombies and Ghosts

“This is definitely a crime thriller,” said Dusty Wilmes. – And to the same extent as Crime and Punishment, where a significant part of the action falls on the time after the murder. A significant part of the suspense in The Text arises from Ilya’s immersion in someone else’s life. So the film can also be considered a digital thriller, when drama is born when exchanging messages on a smartphone. “.

Daria Ezerova agreed with this, recalling Timur Bekmambetov’s film experiences in screenlife format.

“This film has a deeply liberal agenda,” said Daria. – One is bad, and everyone is bad. It is interesting that this statement may well be signed by the officialdom. It is also interesting that national targeting does not prevent the film from meeting international standards. Such a story could happen anywhere, not necessarily in Russia “.

An unexpected genre definition was thrown into the discussion by Nancy Condi. She believes that “Text” is filmed in the genre of films about … zombies.

“Khazin’s corpse lies under the sewer hatch,” she explained. – Ilya returns to him in order to continue the dialogue with the deceased as if he were alive. Ilya carries Khazin’s phone with him like a portable sarcophagus. There is also a zombie – the body of Ilya’s mother, which lies unclaimed in the morgue for several days (the hero has no money to pay for the funeral). The inexorable death of Ilya himself is, as it were, predetermined by external circumstances “.

“Text” is a new version of Monte Cristo, only unlucky, – said Mark Lipovetsky. – I would define its genre as a solipsistic thriller. Since the world around the protagonist is very conditional, the people around him can be called ghosts. Ilya is in a cocoon of loneliness, and is trying to overcome his atomization with the help of text on a smartphone. As for the claims that this film is social criticism, I will note that this is a rather strange criticism. Ilya, having turned out to be Khazin’s double, begins to sympathize with him and his corrupt entourage. The main character is convincing in his actions and experiences. This is largely due to the actor Alexander Petrov, who now embodies the image of a simple Russian hero in Russian cinema “.

Stephen Norris agreed with him: “Yes, Petrov today is a star, this is a brand. He starred a lot in notable films of various genres, he is always in the news, he is constantly talked about. Petrov eclipsed Danila Kozlovsky, who had previously eclipsed Konstantin Khabensky. It is interesting how many allusions and analogies are generated by the film, which absorbs them and remains at the same time a fascinating spectacle. But still, if you think about it, the main characters of the film are a smartphone and a text. “.

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Voice of America Service in New York.

Film Text: Russian Hero Surrounded by Zombies and Ghosts

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