Alexei Balabanov, the latest addition to the lamentably small list of internationally known contemporary Russian directors, is a confounding artist and individual. Brother, his third feature, is a snappily edited, contemporary gangster thriller, shot in semi-documentary style, and a far cry from the elusive black-and-white art-house teasers he’s getting a reputation for. Though the film’s social focus is relatively narrow – following as it does the story of a recently demobbed soldier caught up in his mobster brother’s internecine world of seedy corruption, soulless materialism and frequent violence and death in contemporary St. Petersburg – the carefully depicted environment of cold markets, dossers’ hang-outs and cheerless workers’ flats build a convincing account of a country’s disaffection, directionlessness and yearning stoicism.
Not that the film is depressing. Sergei Bodrov (the charismatic young star of his father’s Prisoners of the Mountains) brings a broody matter-of-factness to his role as the reluctant, rock-obsessed killer Danila. In fact, there’s something of De Niro’s young Vito Corleone about him, especially in the steel he applies in his preparations. He’s in many ways an innocent and a romantic: his rationale, his racism, received not self-developed. Russian critics greeted Brother with hostility; the domestic young audience with enthusiasm, making it the year’s biggest grosser. Balabanov shows again his rare talent for deriving entirely credible performances, shooting with a no-fuss efficiency and assurance, while retaining an authorial distance that leaves the moral lessons creditably open.