When it’s time to leave in “Captain Vokonogov Escaped,” Fyodor (Yuriy Borisov) doesn’t give a second thought to the life he’ll be moving on from, just as he never likely considered the life in front of him while serving in the Bolshevik Army before the rise of Stalin. A loyal soldier through and through, he didn’t need to worry about being removed during the Great Purge, in fact being complicit in torturing others who were vaguely suspected of not pledging themselves completely to the Communist Party, but upon the suicide of of his immediate superior Major Govozdev (Aleksandr Yatsenko), fearful of the repercussions of the Soviet Union’s impending entry into World War II, gearing up for battle with the sale of war bonds, Fyodor suddenly the need to go, apt to make a clean getaway if only his longtime compatriot Kiddo (Nikita Kukushkin) wasn’t around to remind him that while he could likely elude authorities, namely Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev), a dogged apparatchik only slowed by his failing lungs, outrunning his conscience is another matter entirely.
Kiddo is being laid to rest in a mass grave when brings this up to Fyodor, a surreal touch that is perfectly at home in Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova’s bewitching collaboration, which channels the perverse logic of unstable times into a lightly fantastical historical drama that makes sense of a truly dark period in Russian history. Immediately striking with an opening shot in which volleyball is played inside a once grand ballroom, where unfortunately the ball can get caught in the chandelier, the film nods to who its characters once were before they were strictly defined by their party definition, young men who once may have excelled at wrestling or gymnastics before their physical prowess afforded them a place in the National Security Service. Even with the slightest of accusations quickly turning into executions, their standing isn’t in question, but Chupov and Merkulova wonderfully depict the loose soil beneath their feet, reminding of subterranea Terry Gilliam once could conjure so effectively from a world that had seen its glory days come and go, as the torture committed in once grand locales has altered them even if the architecture naturally doesn’t hold any emotion.
Fyodor, himself, would seem to be as immune to feelings as any of those structures, but after being told by Kiddo that he must make amends with a family member of someone whose death he once assured with one of his interrogations, he can’t helped but be moved by coming into contact with various people whose lives he touched without knowing it and though the forgiveness he seeks is hard to come by, a sense of his own humanity only grows. This might sound treacly in lesser hands, but Chupov and Merkulova demonstrate a discipline on par with its characters, with Fyodor’s visits collectively illustrating the scale of how much damage the Security Service has wrought and in shrewdly putting Fyodor into contact with those whose reaction to him varies, but follows a familiar pattern each time of relief at knowing what happened to loved one before coming to learn why he’s privy to such information, one can see the unusual ways fear manifests itself.
With impressive production value from start to finish, the phantasmagoria of “Captain Vokonogov Escaped” is entirely convincing, but what sells it is the moving performance from Borisov, as well as the arresting Tribuntsev. When places are shown to be bent and twisted by what happens within them in Chupov and Merkulova’s distinctive view, the ability to see Fyodor’s internal transformation make its way to the outside is truly something to behold.
“Captain Volkonogov Escaped” will screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 8th at 4:30 pm at the Sala Grande and September 9th at 6:30 pm at the PalaBiennale, 7 pm at the Sala Perla 2, 7:15 pm and 9:15 pm at the Sala Pasinetti.