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BROTHER (BRAT) (director/writer: Alexi Balabanov; cinematographer: Sergei Astakhov; editor: Marina Lipartiya; cast: Sergei Bodrov (Danila), Viktor Soukhoroukov (Viktor), Svetlana Pismmitchenko (girlfriend), Maria Joukova (Kat); Runtime: 99; Kino International; 1997-Rus.)
“If anything, this slickly done gangster thriller should be taken as a political warning by the West that Russia is a wounded animal and still dangerous.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Home from the Chechen War, where he was a HQ clerk, Danila (Sergei Bodrov) is now aimless and unemployed. His mother tells him to leave this small village and go to St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, and see his older brother Viktor (Soukhoroukov) because he is the only hope. He will help you get work.

In St. Petersburg, he finds that Viktor works for the Russian mob and is in trouble with a Chechen mobster who has control of the black market operations in town. Viktor gets Danila to do some of the dirty gun work he can’t do himself against his stronger opposition. This is all played out against the background of a Russia falling apart as a world power; its cultural roots are in decay as its youth is turning to drugs and a decadent Western style of rock music, and its cities are becoming safe havens for gangsters to act with impunity, causing a breakdown in law and order.

Danila is fiercely proud to be Russian, anti-intellectual, and a newly converted fan of the Russian rock group Nautilus, who have a hit CD called Wings that he has a hard time finding in any store. It was easier for him to be pulling off his first job against the Chechen mobster than buying a Nautilus recording (which is a comment on modern Russia). On his first assignment, he ends up killing one of the Chechen’s henchmen; and, in his escape he is slightly wounded as he hops onto a tram and gets help from the driver, Svetlana (Svetlana). Her husband is in jail, which gives him the opportunity to have sex in her apartment. In his forceful and blunt way, hiding his violent tendencies with the warmest smile in St. Petersburg, he professes to have a real romantic interest in her, sincerely sympathizing with her that men are often beating her up. She seems to so passively accept her beatings as part of her life, which I guess is symbolic of how Russia treats its women.

Everything that we learn about the new Russian attitudes comes from seeing it through Danila’s naive eyes. Danila is someone searching for a morality that seems to have evaporated from the old Russian cities. When Danila befriends a German peddler by protecting him from mobsters who are trying to shake him down, he does so because he feels it is the right thing to do. Danila expresses gratitude that the peddler is not a Jew but a German, because he doesn’t like Jews but he doesn’t have anything against Germans. The German turns out to be a man who doesn’t know anymore what is happening to society than he does, but he likes to live by this saying, “What is good for the Russian, is death for the German.” At a later point in the story, he tells the country boy, “That the cities are dark forces the strong come here, but they get weak. The city takes over their strength.” This scene, for one thing, tells how xenophobic the Russians have always been and still are.

Danila’s entry into the drug and rock scene comes about when he is attracted to a young druggie hipster, the pert blond, Kat (Joukova), who gets him to spend money on drugs so that they can party together. Meanwhile he continues working for his weak-kneed brother, by helping him knock off a few of the Chechen mobsters. The brother is startled at how good Danila is with a gun, something he probably learned during the war, even though Danila is evasive about what he did during his army tenure.

Danila doesn’t complain that he is doing all the dirty work he now has plenty of money for girls and enough money to buy himself clothes, and to get the CD’s he loves listening to. His mindlessness and quiet charm, and the heroic qualities he often displays, are both chilling and pitiful to observe. All his accomplishments seem to come through the force of a gun.

If anything, this slickly done gangster thriller should be taken as a political warning by the West that Russia is a wounded animal and still dangerous and a wounded animal who is frightened will do anything to lash out at those it perceives as hurting it. There were many diverting scenes that make that point crystal clear. In a drugged and alcoholic stupor, at a party with Kat, he lashes out verbally at a musician he thinks is American. When told that he is French, Danila replies “Same insults go for him.”

In another scene that shows Danila’s hatred for things that are American, he is in MacDonalds and refuses to eat the American food; but Kat, who is heavily into the Western scene, is seen gleefully gulping down a hot apple pie.

What should make Danila’s character frightening to the West, is that his prejudices and violent acts are readily accepted by the movie-going Russian public as the proper way to act.

When Viktor betrays Danila to the Chechan mobsters who invade Viktor’s apartment to set a trap for the brother, he instead outfoxes them and succeeds in killing off his brother’s enemies — only sparing the life of his cowardly brother. He then reverses the mocking remarks his mother told him when he first came home from the army: as he now mockingly tells the sniveling Viktor to hitch-hike back to mamma and take care of her with the money he just gave him; she is an old lady and needs you. It seems there is a special place in his heart for the Russian even if he is a betrayer; after all, he is a brother.

Danila backtracks to his girlfriends. But they don’t love him or even want to know him. So he leaves one a musical tape and the other a little money he collected from his criminal efforts and he grabs a ride from a truck driver who is heading to Moscow. That should be another stop where his resume as a gangster will come in handy for the future.

Danila is just as dangerous and aimless and charming now as when he left the army.

Sergei Bodrov is devastating as the symbol of the “old” Russian coming back as the “new” Russian. His performance gives the film a reverberating force, depicting the chaos currently going on in a deteriorating country. It shows how difficult it would be to reach someone like him when he can be so deceptive by just smiling and so distant by tuning out what he doesn’t want to hear. It is in his soul that rests the centuries of Russia’s life of misery and war, whose struggle is never over but always seems to be just beginning. He has infused the film with a raw power, that touches the nerves of the things that Westerners understand the least about the Russians. All this makes for a fascinating film, one that is popular in Russia and is quite different from the usual Russian films exported to America. It is one of the most insightful films I have seen about modern Russia and how organized crime has taken a foothold in the country. It is a film that has its finger on the current problems, such as the severe economic decay in Russia and the rise of criminals to fill the void of a lost morality. Russia is now a country where even a brother might be taken for a stranger except for our gangster hero, who is trying to make some sense of what he sees going on since the collapse of Communism. His simple forceful ways to back up the wrongs he sees, seem very attractive to a desperate and cynical people who yearn for a hero to save them from all the corruption. This film has the look and tone of those old American B movies or the more recent Charles Bronson ones, but with a little more depth in its political aims and much more pessimism for its country’s future.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”