‘Captain Volkonogov Escaped’: Film Review | Venice 2021

Russian co-directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov (‘Intimate Parts’) explore the spiritual journey of a secret policeman, played by Yuriy Borisov, who breaks ranks in Soviet-era Leningrad.

Propulsive and tightly constructed, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a Russian period-set drama about a Soviet secret policeman who suddenly sprouts a soul, played by the always watchable, recently much in-demand Yuriy Borisov (Petrov’s Flu). Flecks of jet-black humor add a wicked sparkle to an essentially tragic narrative. Aficionados of Russian literature will note the film’s thematic similarity to works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, with the emphasis on redemption, as well as the absurdism of Nikolai Gogol and — perhaps more aptly given the 1930s setting — the proto-magical realism of Mikhail Bulgakov.

In the end, however, the film’s married writing and directing collaborators Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov (Intimate Parts, The Man Who Surprised Everyone) have fashioned a quintessentially cinematic take on not-so distant history. While Volkonogov superficially looks back toward the last century, it could also easily be read as a more timeless comment on how malignant, repressive states — like, say, Putin’s Russia today — distort and wither the souls of a nation’s complicit apparatchiks and footsoldiers.

Captain Volkonogov Escaped

The Bottom Line

Run, Fyodor, Run.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Yuriy Borisov, Timofey Tribuntsev, Nikita Kukushkin, Aleksandr Yatsenko, Natalya Kudryashova, Vladimir Epifantseve, Dmitriy Podnozov, Igor Savochkin
Directors: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov
Screenwriters: Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov in collaboration with Mart Taniel

2 hours 6 minutes

Supposedly, the film is set in a recognizable Leningrad/St, Petersburg, but one dressed or retouched in post to look like the city in 1937. Nevertheless, there’s a light smattering of intentionally anachronistic period details that sets this apart from the average made-for-TV historical drama.

For a start, titular protagonist Captain Fyodor Volkonogov (Borisov) and his coevals in an organization that seems to be the NKVD (precursor of the KGB and today’s FSB) all wear natty scarlet uniforms, voluminous in the thigh like jodhpurs on steroids which apparently are not in the slightest historically accurate. The intensely colored getups, however, do mark these men out as an elite, close-knit squad who spend much of their time — when not playfully wrestling each other like wolf cubs — rounding up supposed traitors of the revolution, usually on totally trumped-up charges, so they can be tortured and executed.

It’s grim work, of course, and on the morning when the action begins, one of Volkonogov’s superior officers jumps out a window, perhaps because he expects he will himself be next on the dreaded “list” of those to be rounded up. Sensing that his own time in the torture chair is coming, Volkonogov suddenly bolts without much of a plan about where he will go and how he’ll get there.

This marks the start of what evolves into something that’s partly a chase thriller — like The Fugitive but with Constructivist style — and partly a ghost story of sorts that precipitates a quest for redemption, which unfurls like a series of small vignettes.

Volkonogov is advised by the spirit of his slain comrade (Nikita Kukushkin) that he has until sunset tomorrow to find someone he’s wronged who will forgive him, otherwise he will suffer tortures undreamed of even by the Soviets damned to eternity in hell. Consequently, for the rest of the film, Volkonogov works his way through a stolen list of people who have lost loved ones to his unit, survivors often clinging to the deluded hope that the victims are still alive. Some have gone mad, some are so frightened they believe Volkonogov’s solicitations are just part of an elaborate trap, and some have moved on and are just trying to survive, like one chillingly pragmatic child.

Anchoring the film with a charismatic, intensely physical presence, Borisov manages to turn the antihero, at first a brutish bully and thug, into a vulnerable, ultimately pitiable figure. The rest of the cast, made up of a fair few familiar faces from recent Russian arthouse cinema, are equally impressive, especially since most of them have to make their impact in just a few scenes.

Merkulova and Chupov are particularly adept at working with younger performers, some of whom are notably strong here. Meanwhile, their close working relationship with cinematographer Mart Taniel, who also collaborated on the script, pays off with fluid camerawork that’s an integral part of the storytelling. Taniel’s lighting favors golden-hour warmth, full of crepuscular beauty, which creates an interesting tension with the bleakness of the subject.

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Yuriy Borisov, Timofey Tribuntsev, Nikita Kukushkin, Aleksandr Yatsenko, Natalya Kudryashova, Vladimir Epifantseve, Dmitriy Podnozov, Igor Savochkin
Production companies: Place of Power, Lookfilm, Homeless Bob Productions, Kinovista
Directors: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov
Screenwriters: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov, in collaboration with Mart Taniel
Producers: Valeriy Fedorovich, Evgeniy Nikishov, Aleksandr Plotnikov
Director of photography: Mart Taniel
Production designer: Sergey Fevralev
Costume designer: Nadezhda Vasileva
Editor: François Gedigier

2 hours 6 minutes