An executioner has 24 hours to atone for his sins in Captain Volkonogov Escaped, an inventive and disturbing Venice Film Festival competition entry from Russian writer-directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. This married couple finished their screenplay in lockdown, and the result is both nightmarish and dreamlike.
Set in 1938, it presents a stylized version of St Petersburg that feels more like a movie dystopia than a historical drama. But the events it draws from are terrifyingly real. Volkonogov (Yuri Borisov) is a faithful USSR enforcer who goes on the run, fearing for his life, after his colleagues are questioned by their superiors. Appearing in a vision, his dead friend tells him to seek forgiveness from the families of all the people he had a part in killing — innocents who were tortured to extract fake confessions.
Stealing the relevant files, Volkonogov tracks down each relative and demands to be forgiven. Initially, he is simply trying to avoid an eternity in hell. But gradually, he develops a deeper understanding of the consequences of his actions.
From Mart Taniel’s cinematography to Nadezhda Vasileva’s costume design, the look is heightened, ranging from carnivalesque to grotesque. The police uniforms would not be out of place in a circus, a parallel strengthened by their propensity to somersault around their airy HQ. There’s a sadistic fetishism to some of their ’special methods’ – such as forcing a peer to sing a Russian folk song while wearing a full face gas mask, restricting their air. When one officer casually asks to borrow the mask, there’s a dash of dark humor, something that’s often present in this genre-blending film.
There’s also an air of sci-fis such as Minority Report in Merkulova and Chupov’s script. These men are punishing people because they might, one day, commit a crime. But this may be a chicken and egg situation: writer Philip K Dick surely drew from real life atrocities, so absurd and cruel that they seemed otherworldly. And then there are the moments that are the hardest to watch: the executions, in which an expert shows how to best shoot a person dead to save time and ammunition. As he casually demonstrates on real prisoners, inviting the officers to take part, it’s chilling stuff.
That the faces of the victims are obscured seems significant: they are not human to these men. And it will take Volkonogov a revelatory 24 hours to see them as such. There’s an episodic quality to the film as he pays a visit to wives, husbands, fathers, and even children, finding them each in a different point of denial or grief. None have been informed officially yet, but they know their relative to be imprisoned, and often fear the worst.
The tension of the real-time setting is amped up by a police chase closing in on Volkonogov, but this still finds time for moments of contemplation. And as Volkonogov begins to find his heart, this reveals the full talents of star Borisov. This brutal dystopian horror-thriller-drama finds a glimpse of redemption, although the sad central theme remains that of many a war film: man’s inhumanity to man.
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