Pavel Chukhrai’s period adaptation of Gogol’s 1843 comedy “The Gamblers” reps a rather radical departure from the somber sweep of the helmer’s “The Thief” and “A Driver for Vera.” A peculiarly Slavic take on the commedia dell’arte, pic concerns an Italian gambler who sets out to fleece naive marks in the Russian countryside, but instead encounters a trio of merry tricksters. With its madcap slapstick, literary cred, acerbic edge, brilliant perfs and modest production values, “Russian Game” seems uniquely suited to cable.
Threatened with the loss of his estate if he fails to pay his gambling debts, Italian nobleman and cardsharp Luciano (Giuliano di Capua) hies himself off to the Russian hinterlands and the simple, trusting souls therein. Having amassed a tidy sum, he winds up at a country inn, where he is soon locked in a card game with three rustic fellow sharks (Sergei Garmash, Sergei Makovetsky and Andrei Merzlikin).
As bribes and spilled drinks cause one marked deck to be replaced by another, the pros begin to size one another up — finally, at the Russian threesome’s suggestion, laying their cards on the table in an amiable exchange of techniques. Luciano, despite his skepticism, soon finds himself a willing accomplice to a complex scam involving a traveling merchant, his son and a promissory note.
The jaded nobleman falls in with the wily trio less because of the cleverness of their scheme than of their ability to cater to his arrogant, stereotypical preconceptions, as they adroitly keep him off-balance with vodka, gypsy music and nubile young dancers. Their vodka-swilling, Cossack-dancing act is persuasively authentic — it just happens to be accompanied by a limitless capacity for booze and multitasking.
Tyro thesp di Capua easily handles the role of the dissolute aristocrat, blessed with smoldering good looks to go with his quick hands and ancient title.
But pic truly belongs to the consummate talents of vet thesps Garmash and Makovetsky in their delicate balancing act of oafishness, shrewdness and hedonism. Garmash, so effective as an anguished racist lout in Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” leads the scam with bluff heartiness, while fellow “12” cast member Makovetsky essays the drunken follower with sly aplomb. Merzlikin, the youngest member of the trio, portrays the flustered juve with canny brio.
Chukhrai’s one major change to Gogol’s play is a significant one. In making the cosmopolitan pigeon an Italian instead of a Russian, Chukhrai has issued a none-too-subtle warning to those foreign interests who would seek to exploit the warmth and unpretentiousness of Mother Russia.
Tech credits are somewhat undermined by pic’s unconvincing outdoor sets, though lensing and editing are top-flight. Claustrophobic interiors enforce an artificial atmosphere not unrelated to the ingenious scams-within-scams of the pic’s antic gamesters.