The Brutal Life in the Cold

in 8th Almaty Eurasia International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

In his third feature The Convoy (Konvoy), Alexey Mizgirev presents a poignant manifestation of power and enslavement that makes for a serious questioning of authority, human nature and the destructive effects of rage. However, The Convoy also attempts to acknowledge the paradox of the individual psyche by showing the central character’s lonely, isolated, brooding, redemptive side which becomes the impetus for a lesson in tolerance and forgiveness as he journeys across a nightmarish wintry Moscow. Traumatized Captain Ignat, (a flawless performance by Oleg Vasilkov) is ordered to find some missing money and bring back two army deserters before handing them over to a military court. Due to its abrasive portrait of the police and army in today’s Russia, The Convoy serves as a compelling view of the daunting reality within its most important institutions.

Alexey Mizgirev was born in the small Russian town of Myski in 1974, studied Philosophy then film directing under award­winning director Vadim Abdrashitov at the Film Institute VGIK, graduating in 2005.

His first feature, The Hard­Hearted (Kremen), won the award for Best Debut at the 2007 Russian Film Festival in Sochi. Before The Convoy he also directed Buben Baraban (2009).

The opening scene of The Convoy pretty much sets the tone for what is to come. While running in the snow at night in the grounds of the army station, Captain Ignat is approached by three intoxicated members of the squadron who have a message for him. Quite inexplicably, Ignat sets about them provoking a brawl in which he manages to cause grevious bodily harm to at least one before passing out himself. Ignat is disciplined for his actions and it transpires that it’s not the first time he has behaved like this. It will later be explained that he is traumatised by the death of his young daughter for which he feels totally responsible because of his neglect in acting quickly when she was sick, partly explaining his now regular fainting.

Following his latest violent episode, Ignat is given one last chance to redeem himself. Accompanied by a younger less disciplined and party­loving Sergeant (Dmitry Kulichkov), Ignat is ordered to find some missing money and two soldier­deserters, the objective to quietly bring them via Moscow in order to stand trial before a military court, thus avoiding a tribunal.

The first deserter they find in a warehouse but he jumps to his fate in order to avoid being captured. When they visit the home of the other deserter (Kazakhstan actor Azamat Nigmanov), the parents protest that they haven’t seen the young soldier in weeks. However, he is soon found strapped to the underside of his bed.

From here the journey of the displaced trio across the dark Moscow winter is rendered slow and tortuous by the director. The cinematography is claustrophobic, grey and unglamorous during the day and unnervingly dark by night, whether indoors (like in Moscow train station) or outside, where none of Moscow’s famous landmarks come into view to provide any relief from the malaise. Before too long the trio become drawn into the magnet of the city’s underbelly when they find themselves caught up in a bizarre chain of events involving corruption, organised crime and violence (including a vengeful Mafia boss hoping to recruit Ignat), prostitution, degradation and squalidness at its core.

Azamat Nigmanov plays the deserter with brilliant range and depth. His character uses his antics to hide his immense fear of the brutal Captain and brings into the film some tragic­comic humanity. Subsequently, in the form of an unlikely partnership, he also brings a level of thawing into Captain Ignat’s social outlook.

However, this still doesn’t stop him crossing the line and scrutinising him about his daughter, for two reasons ­ one in an attempt to get beneath his hard veneer and let his emotions out; the second in the hope that the captor may show some humanity and therefore have mercy on him. Though captain Ignat’s guard is dropped for a few moments, he then attacks the deserter with a pole for crossing this intangible but very real (forbidden inquest of superior) line.

The Convoy was produced by Pavel Lungin, the son of a scriptwriter and linguist who became a scriptwriter himself before directing. His Taxi Blues was awarded the Best Director Prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. Two years later, his next film Luna Park would also compete at Cannes. A further directing highlight came in 2006 when his religious film The Island (Ostrov) closed the 2006 Venice Film Festival.

Along with Vadim Abdrashitov, the influence of Pavel Lungin’s work is evident in this film’s mise­en-scene and characterisation, which encapsulate the isolation of the protagonists, both in location and in their inner psychosis. The Island (based on an event in WW2) was concerned with the inhumanity and brutality of man, death, grieving, everlasting guilt, isolation and redemption. The same themes can easily be applied to The Convoy where soul­searching is constantly at the heart of the main protagonist. The only difference being that Alexey Mizgirev is able to replicate the isolation of The Island in the Moscow metropolis.

Throughout, The Convoy consistently felt like a director’s film and was ultimately successful because of its excellent ensemble acting and powerful directing. Also, the director should particularly be commended for his bravery in choosing a sensitive and not very often permitted subject. The dark and hellish world he creates accentuates the isolation and the scent of the brutality masterfully. The biting cold, the fear, the lack of humanity and a steadfast, status­oriented, chain of command encapsulates the distressing legacy of total oppression.

Steven Yates