‘It ain’t England there mate, it’s Russia’. Such laughable dialogue sits rather uncomfortably with the austere subject matter in Aleksei Balabanov’s War (2002), a film that details the Chechen conflict of the early Nineties through the eyes of a group of Russian and Western hostages. Perhaps an unfortunate example of the ‘lost in translation’ syndrome, the poor English scripting forms a sizeable part of this large, ambitious, violent but ultimately low-budget movie that veers wildly from brutal realism to parody, sometimes within the same scene. But then maybe that’s the point. Balabanov’s tone changes so much between Chechnya and the Western world that the only reasonable conclusion is one of a staunch Russian Nationalist using satire to lambaste Britain for its pompous ignorance.
The events of the film are related in flashback via its main character Ivan’s pseudo-confessions to a journalist; we never see those whom he is addressing and this lends these scenes an air of dislocation and solitude, as if the story is unknowable to anyone who didn’t experience it. Ivan tells of his capture, along with a Captain, by a group of Chechen rebels. They are held in a camp high in the mountains and forced to labour everyday tending crops or chopping firewood, whilst all the time living in the abject squalor of an oubliette. One day two trucks arrive carrying rebels and four more hostages. Two of the hostages are immediately killed, one has his throat slit and the other is beheaded, and the remaining two, an English couple John and Margaret, are thrown into the same pit as Ivan and the Captain.
The ambiguity of Balabanov’s style quickly becomes apparent. The opening scene where the two hostages are killed is filmed in a subdued manner that puts some distance between the viewer and the violence. The camera is placed across the other side of the forecourt so that the way in which the hostages are killed is perceptible but not obvious. The moment does jar because of the acute sound design but visually it has a cautious, almost respectful feeling to it because of the restraint of the camera. Yet it is this sense of distance that also characterises the film’s relationship with the rebel captors. Never are we given a proper understanding of their political or religious cause and this in effect dehumanises them into faceless, wordless automatons that we cannot connect with. In truth this opening scene may have had more to do with the tight budget and crudity of the prosthetic effects than with any artistic objectivity but it’s clear that this director is as angry at the Chechens as he is at the West.
John (a foppish Ian Kelly) is released by the terrorists, along with Ivan who is deemed worthless as a meagre Soviet footsoldier, in order to raise the £2 million ransom demanded for his fiancée Margaret. He travels home to Britain and begins pleading with various government bodies for the money that will ensure the release of Margaret. Whether or not it was Balabanov’s intention these scenes in England border on the comical. From the montage of John leaving building after building (having been rejected financial help) to the risible characterisation of his middle-class ‘friend’, who does little but drink brandy, smoke cigars and sit in mahogany-lined rooms debating the situation in Chechnya, Balabanov’s West is nothing but a sly joke. Over the next month John manages to amass the money through a variety of means. He then travels to Moscow where in one of the outlying districts he tracks down Ivan and persuades him to go back to the rebel camp for the final showdown.
War is something of an amalgam of styles and sentiment. Its generally persuasive portrait of the Chechen/Russian conflict is at times undermined by poor characterisation and the Rambo-esque histrionics of its leading men. Ivan and John may be lacking the overt muscularity of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger but their 80s ideal of the male war machine nevertheless taints the film and undoes its strive for authority.
The transfer is clean and crisp but the sound sync lapses at one point. The disc includes a reasonably good ‘Making Of’ documentary and a few deleted scenes.