Nikita Mikhalkov

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By JOÃO LANARI BO*

Nikita moved with ease between the establishment and the dissidence, between aesthetic and political ambitions, between being a moralistic prophet and a dramatic artist

As it approaches its second year, the war in Ukraine appears to be the disruptive phenomenon with the greatest impact in this new millennium. Apart from the inevitable bias ideological, the perception that the vaunted international order is being subjected to an impetuous fraying is increasingly clear. Naturally, it is not only war that contributes to this perception, but it is the spearhead that breaks consensus and normative constructions: international law guided by the UN and its updates, such as the International Criminal Court, with jurisdiction to investigate and judge individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Brazil and 122 other countries ratified the treaty that governs the ICC, but decisive actors – the USA and Russia, also China, India and Israel – did not do so. Vladimir Putin has a court-issued arrest warrant for war crimes, including the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. If you set foot in one of the 123 countries and are not arrested, it is yet another legal disruption – and an institutional delay.

Nikita Mikhalkov is one of the creators, on a symbolic level, of Russia's current challenging emergence on the international scene. Prominent actor and filmmaker, in 1994 he directed The deceiving sun, an undisputed milestone in the post-communist scenario. In addition to cinema, he is a personality with considerable influence on national life, through TV and cultural institutions that he presides over. And he does not hesitate to exercise it: his support for the invasion and for Vladimir Putin, for example, is visceral.

Historian Birgit Beumers summarizes Mikhalkov's visionary timeline this way: “Mikhálkov displaces nostalgia for a past, openly constructed as myth, to nostalgia for a past that claims to be authentic. This movement is the result of the collapse of the Soviet value system – a system that encouraged the construction of myths – and the director's inability to face the reality of the 1990s, when he transformed the past and present into a myth that he mistook for real and authentic".

Melodrama and gangsterism

Aleksei Balabanov is perhaps the most compelling film director of Russian modernity. His premature death, in 2013 at the age of 54, exempted him from witnessing his country's turnaround after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. His career transitioned from art house – films inspired by Beckett and Kafka – to an extremely popular genre, parodic gangsterism.

Dead man's bluff, which Aleksei Balabanov completed in 2005 – at the height of the Putin “miracle” – stars Nikita Mikhalkov as a caricatured and cruel gangster.

Brother, from 1997, narrates the mishaps of a Chechen veteran in neo-capitalist Saint Petersburg amid the conflict between gangs, including Chechens, in calibrated doses of humor, terror and bored characters. It achieved the feat of not only reinvigorating cinema attendance, but also – remarkably – selling 400 “legal” video copies in the first five months of release.

The continuation, Brother 2, completed in 2000, was even more successful. At a time when money changed hands at an unprecedented speed, the feeling was that there were no ethical or moral limits that would put order in the house. Violent subjects were no exception, they were guys like any other. What was left of all this? The construction of a Russian identity? Or at least one of the poles of this identity?

Researcher Susan Larsen saw a harmony in this aesthetic drive of Aleksei Balabanov with another movement equally focused on reconstructing the audience in this turbulent era: the blockbuster-melodramatic cinema of Nikita Mikhálkov. The deceiving sun, a film that gave the director enormous prestige, especially internationally, revisited the perverse past of Stalinism and leveraged the ambitious production of The Barber of Siberia, shot in 1998 at a cost of 45 million dollars.

Remarkable success in the domestic market – competing with Brother – it didn’t work externally: explicitly nationalist, the plot is difficult to assimilate, comings and goings around the main character, a cadet in imperial Russia obsessed with Mozart. More than half of the film is spoken in English. Her passion is an American from Chicago, assistant to an inventor determined to sell a colossal tree-cutting machine.

Even though they are different in origin and narrative strategy, for Larsen the parallels remain valid: the heroes of Mikhalkov and Balabanov seem to be imbued with a “sexual magnetism derived from loyalty to a masculine moral code” close to a “xenophobic nationalism”, which suggests “insecurities of its creators on the… cultural authority of the nation and the film industry they represent.”

Russian roulette

Em Dead man's bluff the parallel lines of Mikhalkov and Balabanov meet. In an environment of total criminological debauchery, in the Yeltsin era, one of the characters who commands the farce is played by Nikita Mikhálkov – nothing could be more antithetical in relation to the redemptive utopia of the great and unique Russia that lay in the actor's mind (in The Barber of Siberia attributed the role of Tsar Alexander III).

Those who move the narrative are two brother-henchmen who never tire of grotesquely promoting the conflict between Russia and the West: Sergei is an Orthodox Christian, makes the sign of the cross before the next execution and dreams of building a Church; Simon, brother and accomplice, reads comics, can't do without McDonalds and tortures his victims while fueled by “Look at me now”, a hit by Electric Light Orchestra. O big boss is Sergei Mikhalych, tattooed on his chest, in Cyrillic alphabet, with the initials USSR – in a mix of bonhomie and bloodthirsty resolution. On the scene, the versatile Mikhalkov.

The succession of mischief – it is a comedy – is punctuated by 50 liters of blood fake, according to press release of the producer. It's no small feat. It's also about recovering a suitcase full of heroin, stolen by rivals. The satirical deconstruction of the world of crime takes the duo on a roundabout of murders, culminating in Russian roulette, a metaphor that summarizes the spirit of the time – the film is dedicated “to those who survived the 1990s”.

At the opening, an economics teacher recommends to students: what counts is the initial capital. She speaks in the 2000s, and refers to the turbulence of capital formation after the fall of communism. In sequence, Dead man's bluff moves in flashbacks, in an unnamed city, shuffling between ineptitude and (dis)loyalty, signs of the fragmentation of the socialist labor market.

The end is transparent: a few years later in Moscow, overlooking the Kremlin and Saint Basil's Cathedral – built by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the conquest of Kazan – Sergei is pleased as an elected member of Parliament, and Simon as an advisor . The former boss, Sergei Mikhalych, now works as a receptionist in the office. Welcome to the Putin era.

Prophet or artist?

Nikita's personality expanded in apparently contradictory ways after Yeltsin's period as president, between 1991 and December 31, 1999. During Soviet times, her films achieved artistic recognition. As an actor, his excessive and sweeping style guaranteed him participation in high-grossing films. He has always enjoyed a privileged relationship with power, thanks above all to the connections of his father, Sergei Mikhálkov, celebrated author of children's books and the lyrics to the national anthem, in 1942, commissioned by Stalin.

The lyrics were modified by Sergei Mikhálkov himself after the leader's death – and finally adapted in 2000 at Putin's request. Birgit Beumers points out that Nikita never had problems with censorship: he always moved with ease between the establishment and the dissidence, between aesthetic and political ambitions, between being a moral prophet and a dramatic artist.

In 1997, he was elected president of the Filmmakers' Union, a position he had unsuccessfully sought in 1986. In 1998, during the 5th Plenary of the Union, he criticized the preponderance of scenes of violence and murders in contemporary Russian films, stating that the representation of violence in cinema was not proportional to reality. The orthodox-Christian streak naturally intensified: in 1999, in an attempt to be elected deputy, he interrupted a debate on TV to sing the “Our Father” – it didn't work, and he was not elected.

In 2007, Nikita Mikhálkov co-authored an open letter calling on Putin to run for a third presidential term, in violation of the Constitution – in addition to producing a TV documentary celebrating the President's 55th birthday.

And it was also in 2007 that he made one of his best films, 12, adapted from 12 men and one sentence, directed by Sidney Lumet, in 1957. Without straying from the mainstream, and benefiting from a mise-en-scène Consistently theatrical, Mikhálkov achieved a successful insertion into a highly delicate topic: Chechnya and the separatist conflict. Twelve jurors decide on the fate of a young Chechen, accused of having murdered his adoptive father, a Russian army officer, exposing his biased views and private dramas in the process. It won an award in Venice and critics appreciated it.

Dear comrades

Nikita's origins excel in the artistic vein. The famous Vasili Surikov, considered the painter of the “Russian national character”, was the grandfather of his mother, the writer and poet Natalia Konchalovskaya – and Natália was the daughter of another important artist, Pyotr Konchalovsky. The care with name designation was a concern: during the long communist interval, the family changed the keynote from Mikhalkov to Mikhalkov, in order to hide the aristocratic origin.

Birgit Beumers further reports – after the collapse of the USSR, the tone returned and Nikita went further, producing a 200-year-old family tree linking the family to the writers Pushkin, Tolstoy and Gogol, even to Catherine II the Great.

His brother, Andrei Konchalovsky, an equally prestigious filmmaker, chose the matronymic as his stage name. He and Nikita have ups and downs in their personal relationships. One of the low points must have been the documentary “Battle for Ukraine”, which Andrei directed in 2012, interviewing politicians and historians, most of them Ukrainian. The idea was to show the neighbor's struggle to escape the “close embrace of its big brother”, Russia, and not become an American satellite.

In 2020 Konchalovsky held Dear comrades: Workers in struggle, about the brutal repression of the strike by workers at the Electric Locomotive Factory, in 1962, in the city of Novocherkassk – caused by the increase in the price of milk and the simultaneous decrease in wages. How is a strike with blood and deaths possible in a communist country? And, to top it off, being elided from history, with witnesses forced to sign a confidentiality agreement promising silence under penalty of death in case of breaking the agreement?

It was a great erasure operation, which worked until rumors and protests surfaced, culminating in Solzhenitsyn mentioning it in his Gulag Archipelago, in 1973. A resilient presence, a memorial substance that Konchalovsky's film updates and recovers, bringing to light the violence buried by official history, ultimately a contradiction of the system – strike and repression – that the system itself was unable to absorb .

The Exorcist

In 2017 Nikita decided to aim his artillery at the Yeltsin Presidential Center – founded in 2009 in Yekaterinburg, with the mission of promoting “the institution of the Russian presidency and the development of civil society, democratic institutions and the rule of law”. The target: an animated short produced by the Center about the Russian past, which would be limited to a parade of bloody tyrants and endless misery. He proposed closing the site, or at least rigorously reviewing its educational policy.

It didn't work, apparently due to a surprising miscalculation: he forgot or ignored the simple fact that Putin was indebted to Yeltsin for his nomination to run for President, on December 31, 1999.  The President publicly disavowed him – In the year of the centenary of the 1917 revolutions, Russians should be guided “by reconciliation” and reject “the incitement of passions”, said Vladimir Putin.

The action was one of the themes of Mikhalkov's TV show, Besogon TV – which can be translated as “The Exorcist TV”. Broadcast on the Russia-24 channel, it was suspended in May 2020, after raising suspicions that the Covid vaccination was a biological weapon used by Bill Gates to inoculate chips into the population and destroy it. Nikita protested against the “censorship” of the channel, and continued her ministry on YouTube. Exactly one year later, in 2021, The Exorcist TV returned to the channel – Ukraine and its demons, needless to emphasize, asked for his charismatic presence. War was now real.

A paradigmatic case: the Ukrainian language, according to him, is a “catastrophe” for Russia; foments hatred against the country and spreads Russophobia. His teaching is an operation directed at the child's subconscious. Nikita does not hesitate to attribute perfidy to anyone other than the head of the rebellious angels, Satan.

Sitting on a leather-covered chair in his study, surrounded by icons and a collection of figurines, Mikhálkov distills a varied set of propositions like this. With a soft voice and modulating gestures and expressions, generally adorned with a cozy scarf, the presenter shamelessly revisits History to corroborate – Russia is a besieged fortress under constant threat of attack. It is a great country, he insists, a reality that the world forgets at its peril.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar). [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


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