Award-winning scenarist (“Djuba, Djuba,” “Limita,” both co-written with Alexei Samorjadov) turned first-time director Petr Lutsik takes aim at reckless capitalism — as well as the increasing Westernization of Russian filmmaking — with a disquieting allegory that in both themes and aesthetic is an audacious throwback to pre-WWII Soviet cinema formalism. Unquestionably one of the most striking Russian features in recent years, “The Outskirts” should get ample fest circuit mileage, though making offshore arthouse inroads would require considerable distributor chutzpah.
A long opening title card informs us that the residents of a remote village rioted after discovering that oil rights to the land they’ve lived on for centuries had been sold out from underneath them. Quelled by thugs, their property invaded by machinery, the polluted landscape losing fish and game, most citizens grimly have accepted this and moved to factory jobs “in the town.”
But a few elderly men are more profoundly offended; they form a vigilante party to hunt down the four “smart aleck” authority figures who put their seals on the certificate of sale, sans locals’ consent. The creaky quintet — dragging along apathetic young Panka (Alexei Pushkin), the nephew of group leader Philip (Yuri Dubrovin) — sets out across the bleak, wintry terrain, first traveling by foot, then motorbike, train and so on.
First stop on this reversed “Three Little Pigs”–type trip is the home of their former collective chairman, who after being nearly drowned in an icy lake repents and joins the crew’s cross-country quest. Next visited is an entrepreneur caught in mid-flight with wife and kids; he’s beaten and threatened into revealing the whereabouts of Exploiter No. 3, a party official who isn’t quite so lucky.
This killing presages another brutal death — the first violence seen onscreen — and the climactic confrontation with “The Master” (Victor Stepanov). This gloating capitalist brags, “Now everything can be bought and sold,” and laughs at the concerns of his “simple-hearted” guests. His fascistic white-on-white office, “decorated” with little more than containers of oil and gas samples from his various usurped territories, is soon splattered with the results of grisly peasant revenge.
Pic moves fully into the realm of symbolism as this multinational corporate pirate’s entire city explodes in apocalyptic flames, leaving protags going back to the land in an idyllic final sequence in which agriculture once again seemingly becomes Russia’s collective linchpin.
Earlier scenes offer a sort of surreal, deadpan take on earthy “peasant” humor and archetypes. But as feature progresses (and violence escalates), initially comic protagonists grow more steely and threatening — especially the striking-looking Pushkin, whose Panka evolves from sullen hayseed to a rather scary, remorseless figure.
Spare dialogue and direction’s distancing techniques (blackout-separated segs , posed tableaux, patently “unreal” use of back projection) make this a shiftily ironic parable one can read in several ways. But for all its ambiguities, “The Outskirts” (named after Soviet helmer Boris Barnet’s classic 1933 feature, which portrays the beginning rather than end of farm collectivization) is clear as a pointed statement about how Russian prole exploitation hasn’t really changed through czarist, communist and glasnost eras.
Lenser Nikolai Ivasiv delivers beautiful, stark images on a B&W palette that’s mostly degrees of gray. Adding to the retro feel is use of orchestral music rearranged from two other 1930s Soviet films, “Sunday” and “Chapeyev.” Performances are sharp and enigmatic, pacing measured, other tech aspects very accomplished.