Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Eastern Promises

Dir. David Cronenberg

A friend of mine recently returned from several months in Russia. He explained it as one of the most harrowing and grossly depressing experiences of his life (my words here paraphrase his more articulate sentiments). It seems contemporary Russian culture is divided very strongly between the new and the aged, the young and the old, the progressive and the historical. He told me McDonald's is one of the most popular restaurants in St. Petersburg, with lines often stretching out the door. He also told me about the memorials to Stalin and Lenin and how the two respective leaders are still worshiped there. Russia is a strongly patriarchal country, and Lenin and Stalin were father figures in the league of gods. This past summer the Russian economy tanked, with the RTS index losing 80 percent of it's value in six months. My friend told me he saw 13 year old kids passed out on tables next to bottles of vodka, while their friends begged cigarettes from strangers. The desire to escape poverty will cause people to do many, sometimes seemingly unforgivable, things. David Cronenberg's most recent film Eastern Promises is about the ever shifting lines of morality in eastern, and more specifically Russian, culture. It is a film that doesn't seek to dissociate between right and wrong, but rather attempt to understand the basis for the dichotomy and what allows people to commit acts that others deem unthinkable.

In the film Russian culture is displaced from it's homeland and unearthed in London; a prosperous and diverse part of the world. The film stars Anna (Naomi Watts) as a midwife at a local hospital who, after delivering a baby for a teenage Russian immigrant who dies in childbirth, discovers a diary the leads her into a shadowy world of appearances and loyalties; crime and murder. She meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a Russian Secret Service member working in conjunction with Scotland Yard to infiltrate the Russian organized crime syndicate in London. He is posing as the driver of a young Russian pseudo-aristocrat whose father is head of the family that Nikolai seeks to disarm. The film gives an indepth and disturbing view into the mob psyche: the extent and limitations of it's cruelty and the hierarchal system of loyalty and leadership. The film has been praised by critics for being an authentic picture of the Russian criminal underworld, so I am told. This post-script is the unfortunate punchline to the truth about so many films, especially crime films. I, like most of the assumed audience of Cronenberg's film, know nothing about the Russian crime world and anything I know about the mafia in general comes from fictionalized depictions in film and television (The Sopranos, The Godfather, etc.). The fact is that, in trusting Cronenberg's reputation as an often uncomfortably accurate director, I am taking him at his word. The theory known as “suspension of disbelief” often used in conjunction with war films or films in which non-American characters speak perfect, fluent English (I'm looking at you Slumdog Millionaire) would be a bit harsh in this situation. It is not so much that, as a viewer, I simply choose to believe what is placed in front of me but that I simply believe it. Therein lies the dangerously two-sided nature of authenticity in film: that, as a director or writer, your audience believes you. The Russian crime world could not possibly be presented in a 100 minute drama without some simplification, or the narrowing of scope. In Eastern Promises Cronenberg gives enough detail to convince even the most scrutinous of casual film goers of his clear understanding of the Russian criminal world and frame of mind. At no point does the film get caught in it's own web, but instead weaves an elaborate tale of morality with excellent cinematography, precise choreography of scenes and actions, and powerful acting, avoiding the “Yeah, but wait...” moments by simply distracting the viewer away from the notion that all they are seeing is a simulated portrayal of a very real and terrifying world.

Cronenberg is not alone in this approach. In fact most films that take place in an environment foreign to the viewer utilize the same idea. A film that is too crowded with explanation or detail is a film that bores and stifles it's intended audience. Still, Eastern Promises at times presents almost too many foreign objects for the audience to cope with. Compared to his previous effort, A History of Violence, which was brutally succinct and focused, Eastern Promises occasionally seems unsure of which point it is trying to highlight: That good and evil are subjective to the person in question (killing babies is wrong, but murdering a man who insinuates another's homosexuality is not)? The cultural divide between East and West (Naomi Watts is portrayed as having pure intentions, while Mortensen's are less clear)? I'm not suggesting that you become a forensic scientist so that you can tell how bullshit CSI is (or isn't...), or that film makers should stick to making pictures that are painfully tangible and logical. I am, however, saying that appealing to an audience is a delicate balance between the foreign and the familiar, which everyone, film makers and film goers alike, should keep in mind.

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