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New Release Review - Siberian Education

Chronicle of two childhood friends' descent into crime.

Directed by: Gabriele Salvatores
Starring: John Malkovich, Arnas Fedaravicius, Vilius Tumalavicius, Eleanor Tomlinson, Peter Stormare




It’s been a while since Salvatores won his Best Foreign Language Oscar for 'Mediterraneo' and his critically lauded but overrated child’s eye thriller 'I’m Not Scared'. This hotchpotch of gangsters, family and revenge drama is not likely to make the impact of either of those films.
Spanning the decade preceding and post Glasnost, amidst the small community of Siberian folk in Transnistria, this follows the lives of childhood friends Kolyma (Fedaravicius) and Gagarin (Tumalavicius) as they rise from petty criminals under the tutelage of Kolyma’s Grandfather Kuzya (John Malkovich) to soldier and gangster respectively.
Salvatore’s influences are easy to see; mixing the early elements of 'Once Upon a Time in America' with 'Goodfellas' but without either the panache of Scorsese or the baroque stylings of Sergio Leone’s sweeping epic. His biggest mistake is shooting in English, leading to a hotchpotch of English, Lithuanian, Swedish and Americans all doing generic "The Count from Sesame Street" Eastern European accents. This allows Malkovich to dust off his “let’s play some caaaards” Teddy KGB accent from 'Rounders' to more subdued but no less irritatingly mannered effect. Malkovich’s Grandfather is there to offer such gnomic utterances as “The home of every living thing is the sky” and “a man cannot possess more than he can love”. By the time he has started telling an analogy about a wolf living with men you can practically feel the director nudging you in the ribs.
When we are introduced to Kolyma and Gagarin’s gang they are so one dimensional that their characters amount to one being fat and the other sneezes a bit. That Gagarin may be the one to go off the ropes is less foreshadowed than put in a spotlight with neon letters. When Gagarin is caught robbing a truck with the gang and goes to prison we get the inevitable jump forward to early adulthood and the beginning of the end for the gang. There really isn’t much in the way of story or depth so Salvatore tries to keep interest by using the adult Kolyma as a soldier on the hunt for Gagarin and using this as the jump off point for extensive flashbacks to life changing moments in their hoodlum careers. The trouble is there is no sense of the hunt, no real connection or sense of enmity and betrayal between the characters. It feels like a truncated larger work. Like exam notes for a more expansive text.
The biggest disappointment is in its female characters. Xenya (Tomlinson), as a simpleton daughter of a local Doctor, may be the fulcrum on which the drama rests but she is such a one note character, so pure and innocent that the director doesn’t just have her releasing doves at one point, he has her trying to become one. Despite this, Tomlinson gives by far the best performance in the film, even if her existence is solely to be abused so that Kolyma has a reason to seek revenge. It’s a character arc that is liable to break the Bechdel Test.
There is a more interesting film under the surface here, one that looks at the arcane practices of outmoded gangster ideology in a modern world and the explosion of capitalism in Russia. One that looks at the practice of tattooing as not only art but as autobiography for the body. These are given lip service but discarded for the generic thrills of revenge and violence. Dull and insubstantial gruel when it should be a lively, colorful piquant Borscht.
4/10


Jason Abbey

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