Not many films open in utero, with a fetus smoking a cigarette as his older self intones in voiceover, “I have a terrible memory,” but “Rag Union” isn’t like many films. A bracing tragicomic punk fable, it also features homemade bombs, beetle-eating and parkour, along with one of the sparkier and more committed no-name ensemble performances of recent memory. The brainchild of Gen-X debut scripter-helmer Mikhail Mestetskiy, this is textured firecracker filmmaking, where the stunts and surreality can’t wholly drown out a howl of rage over the political status quo in contemporary Russia. Genuine entertainment value and a watchable main cast of four young tearaways could help it push past its generally weird vibe to find the open-minded patrons it deserves.
A womb with a view may function as an arresting opening gambit, but once that’s out of the way, “Rag Union” initially seems as if it will settle into approximate “Napoleon Dynamite” territory. Our Moscow-based teen hero, Vania (Vassily Butkevich) is the sort of conventional misfit with whom indie cinema is overrun. He has posters of John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain and Elvis on his walls and worries that “all the good people are dead.” In an amusing if not particularly radical sight gag, he imagines this holy quartet sitting nonplussed around his breakfast table.
Vania believes he has a job opportunity in advertising at a local headstone designers, but when he turns up, he finds that all he and a bunch of other schmoes are supposed to do is dress up in giant headstone outfits and hand out leaflets. Editing here by Ivan Lebedev and Sergey Loban is economical, jump-cutting to the visual humor and obviating the need for excessive expository dialogue. A shot of Vania sitting dressed as a headstone surrounded by others in a graveyard where he has sought refuge is an image that would sit comfortably in the oeuvre of Roy Andersson.
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Appropriately enough, it’s from this early graveyard scene onwards that the film shifts gear, as Vania meets the self-styled “Rag Union” – an anarcho-nihilist syndicate with just three members, Petr (Pavel Chinarev), Andrei (Ivan Yankovskiy) and Popov (Alexander Pal). As Petr puts it, “We are freaks, know-it-alls, jerk-offs. There is a lot we can afford to do. We can look over the edge.”
From there, Vania is assimilated into the impractical fantasy world the group inhabit, where a mixture of physical training, art stunts, improvised music and wholesale destruction form a makeshift manifesto against convention, corruption and bourgeois values. This is prevented from pretension by the sheer energy of Mestetskiy’s direction, with Timofei Parschikov’s boisterous camera alternating between soaring aerial shots, extreme close-ups, restless hand-held and more composed tableaux as required.
This is a breakout performance for Pal: His physical commitment to his role gives Leonardo DiCaprio a run for his money, as he plunges his head into thick mud, puts live insects in his mouth and generally turns it up to 11 wherever possible. Less grotesquely, the pic reps a camera-friendly showcase for Yankovskiy’s boyband looks; if anyone needs to cast a Russian Justin Bieber type any time soon, this is who to call. Kudos too, to casting director Vladimir Golov for discovering promising nebbishy newcomer Butkevich and bringing intense stage actor Chinarev to the big screen.
Like the punk kid brother of Andrey Zvyagintsev, Mestetskiy is keenly aware that something is rotten in the state of Putin, and Mestetskiy’s brand of addled anarchic absurdism may indeed be the only sane response to unchecked kleptocracy. It is a pity that the group’s most disruptive challenge proves to be a thinly-drawn female influence. It is a similar impulse to the ideologically similar “Fight Club”, where illogical statements — “We’re a generation of men raised by women; I’m just wondering if another woman is what we really need” — collapse under even modest scrutiny. “Rag Union” can, however, claim adolescence as something of a get-out clause: None of these characters is supposed to be a fully formed human beings yet, and the lion’s share of the blame for their stunted prospects is laid at the door not of the convenient female scapegoat, but of the state.
While this energising pic should at least sustain a long and healthy round of festival circuit exposure, it would be heartening to see an enterprising sales and distribution campaign clear the obvious barriers of a no-name cast and crew. “Rag Union” could prove an entertaining ride for auds, if they can only be recruited to the syndicate.