Moscow's Mean Streets

Ctb.ru"Shultes" is a bleak story about sports coach and pickpocket Shultes, who meets a younger boy, Kostik, in the metro. They commit more serious crime together.
A recent Russian film release, the visually still and emotionally spare "Shultes," has been winning awards and impressive festival acclaim. It appeared in the Cannes supporting program Directors' Fortnight and then won the main prize at Kinotavr, the national film festival in June.

These are considerable laurels, especially considering that Tbilisi-born Bakur Bakuradze is a first-time feature director. But he deserves them, producing a work that is sometimes elliptical and occasionally slow, and works with visual elements and silences far more than with words or action.

Bakuradze's career has been associated with Moscow for more than 15 years. He graduated from the VGIK film school in 1998 and subsequently worked here in short films, documentaries and television.

That said, there's very little that ties the action of his new film specifically to Moscow. It's set in the kind of location that could be found in any medium-sized city in Russia (or, for that matter, Eastern Europe).

The film's title, "Shultes," comes from the surname of the lead character. Initially, we see him looking after his dying mother with tenderness in a small apartment. In between he appears to have a job as an athletics coach. As a former prize-winning sportsman himself, Shultes (first-time actor Gela Chitava), continues to run daily through local, empty parks. Somewhere on the edge of the city, a train-ride away, he has a brother doing military service, whom he visits from time to time.

Only gradually do we learn that Shultes is a quick-fingered pickpocket who works the metro on a regular basis, with connections to other areas of criminal activity. These come to the fore when he spots a young boy, Kostik (Ruslan Grebyonkin), doing the same crime on a bus. First he chases the youngster, then he befriends him, and then they team up to go for more serious targets.

There's little to raise the spirits here -- though the quasi-father and son relationship between the two rings true, as does Shultes' mother's cremation. His occasional sexual contact with a girl from a local store is emotionally hollow; some vague emotional engagement comes at the end -- a complex story element that is perhaps the most precarious in Bakuradze's film. The closing scenes bring in a new revelation to the plot, as well as suggesting that Shultes has simply run out of energy, any potential adrenaline from his criminal activity overshadowed by a wider tiredness.

The film was made by St. Petersburg-based CTB, led by one of the pioneer producers of the Russian industry from the 1990s, Sergei Selyanov. Selyanov is clearly still willing to take risks -- and unless "Shultes" turns in impressive international results, it's hard to see how the project will make any kind of profit.

As a footnote, look out for another original project, Igor Voloshin's "Nirvana," also a debut feature from CTB. The two couldn't be more different: Voloshin's film is set in St. Petersburg, catching a stylized world of drugs and nightlife drama, centered around a communal apartment, where heroine Alisa (Olga Sutulova) engages with her two troubled co-residents.

The program notes are pessimistic: "It is a story of people who have lost the meaning of life at its very beginning." But the accompanying dОcor is positively rococo, with the actors sporting elaborate hairstyles and makeup.

Like "Shultes," it has something to say about contemporary life, although in a completely different tone. Voloshin's final scene, a long-track shot set to music by the 1980s British group Joy Division -- known for their strongly depressive elements -- is little short of masterful.

Both films play through the end of the month at Pyat Zvyozd-Novokuznetskaya -- a venue that seems to be the only one in the city that will keep such non commercial fare on display for longer than a week or two, and actually appears to be catching audiences by doing so. "Nirvana" is running in a close-to-midnight slot -- perhaps appropriate for a drug-themed movie. But the most important thing is that it's running at all. And that producers are backing the types of films that these directors have made.

See the calendar listings for details.