In an ornate palace ballroom overhung by an immense chandelier, a gang of strapping, shaven-headed young men play volleyball on a makeshift court. Stripped down to their undershirts, the game degenerates into vigorous roughhousing, and finally into a wrestling match. As flesh slaps flesh, amid the fading grandeur of Old Russia and the grunts and catcalls of its self-anointed revolutionary inheritors, the superb opening scene of Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov’s “Captain Volkogonov Escaped” builds a cleverly keyed-up, yet also stylishly pared-back vision of pre-war Leningrad as a purgatorial proving-ground from which, contrary to the film’s title, there can be little hope of escape.
For these young men, bonded together by their sense of untouchability as the enforcers of the regime’s oppressive, arbitrary cruelty, masculinity is expressly defined by competitive aggression. And young Captain Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov) is the fittest, perhaps smartest and certainly the most paranoiacally intuitive of the bunch. And so he also tends to be the last man standing.
That’s certainly the case, when, for no discernible reason one morning, as he’s chatting with his best friend Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushin), Volkogonov starts to notice his comrades being summoned, one by one, for “re-evaluation” — the first in a series of loaded doublespeak euphemisms that pepper the tartly written screenplay (from Merkulova, Chupov and Mart Taniels, who is also the cinematographer). None of the men return, and, barely ahead of the roll call, Volkogonov flees the building, leaving Veretennikov to an ugly fate — an act that will come back literally to haunt him.
Now on the run in civilian clothing, Volkogonov is rounded up with some homeless men and forced to dig the grave of his summarily executed squadron, when a vision of a reproachful Veretennikov comes clawing from the ground. If Volkogonov is going to avoid similar eternal damnation, he must repent all the evil he did (in an office in the security services building that is casually strewn with straw to soak up all the blood) and must also find one person — one relative of a murdered or “disappeared” victim — who will forgive him.
The rest of the film unfolds, bar flashbacks to the camaraderie of old, as a long chase. Volkogonov visits the homes of his victims’ families in search of his elusive redemption, as though on a particularly extreme version of Step Nine in an AA program — Torturers Anonymous, perhaps. And he’s always only just ahead of his newly promoted pursuer: Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev) may be visibly ill from a lung condition that occasionally wracks his body in coughing fits, but with his feet held to the fire by his superiors, he becomes ever more dogged and resourceful in trying to bring Volkogonov in.
In just their third collaboration after the well-received “Intimate Parts” and “The Man Who Surprised Everyone,” Merkulova and Chupov deliver the visceral aspects of this Dostoevskian tale particularly well, especially in terms of Taniels’ voluptuous widescreen camerawork, Nadezhda Vasilyeva’s slyly anachronistic costuming (the totalitarian potential of the tracksuit has seldom been better evoked) and Elena Stroganova and Matis Rei’s elegant yet propulsive score. And their star, Borisov, having a banner breakout year with two films in Cannes (“Compartment No. 6” and “Petrov’s Flu”), one in Locarno (“Gerda”) and now two here in Venice (the other being Horizons Extra selection “Mama I’m Home”) is a strikingly charismatic container for the story’s bristling energy. In his sculpted, muscular performance, the film makes a stylized, pitch-black comment on the cult of physical fitness that often infects strongman-led societies; even Golovnya, he of the sickly pallor, lank hair and greasy brow, periodically marks a moment by performing a neat dismount from a handy pommel horse.
But “Captain Volkogonov Escaped” is so attuned to the physical that the more metaphysical aspects of Volkogonov’s journey are underdeveloped by comparison. His quest for forgiveness is met with failure after failure. Some of the victims’ loved ones have lost their minds. Others are full of sullen rage at the injustice of their bereavement. Still others are Party apparatchiks convinced of their relatives’ guilt purely by dint of the State’s accusations — or they say they are.
Throughout this litany, there’s little feel for Volkogonov’s internal evolution from a guy who is trying, almost bureaucratically, to get the box marked “forgiveness” checked before submitting his form in triplicate to heaven, to a guy who truly understands what repentance is. “They’re innocent right now, but they will be guilty later on,” is how a superior officer glibly justifies the torture of clearly blameless parties. And though “Captain Volkogonov Escaped” tracks the opposite trajectory — from arrogance and cynicism to humility and humanity; from guilt to, if not innocence then at least a form of grace — in some ways, it rings similarly hollow.