Dr. Gerald Matthew McCausland

... Vladimir Khotinenko's 1995 film Moslem (Musulmanin) was widely interpreted by the critics as a film about tolerance, specifically about religious tolerance. It was felt perhaps by some to be forcing a non-Russian idea down the throats of Russian viewers. The film, however, is much more than a plea for tolerance. It represents the failed encounter with the mirror image, only here on the level of an entire community. It tells the story of a Russian POW who returns to his home town from many years in captivity in Afghanistan, during which he adopted the Islamic faith. The return of "our own" who is no longer "our own" represents a challenge to the village inhabitants. They react to his conversion at first with confusion but then with growing hostility. His rejection of their cultural values challenges the viewer to define the specific elements of Russian culture in question.

The returned soldier, Nikolai Ivanov, has taken a new Moslem name in captivity, but is invariably called "Kolya" in the film. Despite his Afghan prayer shawl and hat, his physical appearance, in particular his face, bears no marks of his change in religious identity. His Russianness is stressed visually at many points early in the film. We see several full frontal shots of his face framed much as an icon might frame the face of a Christian saint. A photograph of his face is also seen in a newspaper clipping kept by a mysterious stranger who is following him around the village, apparently preparing to kill him. As he interacts with his family and neighbors, we are constantly reminded that he once was a member of this society, embedded in its web of familial and social relations. However, he remains strangely silent, speaking only with his mother (and Allah) for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film. His relationship with his mother is the one familial bond that seems relatively intact. His relationship with his brother, Fedya, is characterized by hostility almost from the outset. Their sibling rivalry is but an extreme form of the hostility that many members of the community feel toward Kolya as they see that he no longer shares their life and values. It is significant that Fedya alone has the ability to elicit an aggressive and eventually violent reaction from Kolya himself.

The film rejects the notion that the hope for Russian redemption springs from the village. This village is portrayed as a nest of decay and corruption within a beautiful Russian countryside. The conflicts between Kolya and the villagers serve to highlight the ways in which the village has become a ruin. Kolya's refusal to consume alcohol makes clear the degree to which alcoholism is rampant. His lack of interest in material possessions draws attention to the central role that money and economics play in the life of the village. His resistance to an old girlfriend's sexual advances highlight the widespread collapse of traditional morality. The sources of the town's corruption are several; there is no one single culprit. Western culture and western market economics play their part, as do stereotypical Russian vices. When Kolya refuses to help his family steal lumber from a state enterprise, his mother takes offence and reminds him that it is the Soviet state that led them to the poverty from which they now cannot escape. The people have no spiritual resources with which to oppose the corruption around them. In particular, Kolya's fidelity to Islamic law and practice lay bare the faint influence that Orthodox Christianity has on the lives of the people. The village priest is a curious figure, visually identified more with the open landscape than with any church building or religious celebrations. His fidelity to his religious practices is part of his character and he is quite alone in his adherence to the laws of the Church. He has no more influence on the village than the speech-impaired shepherd, who is visually identified with the lake and the pagan legends surrounding it.

In the context of the film's thematics, this Russian identity is most clearly seen in Christian culture, given physical substance in the institution of the Russian Orthodox Church. The community's hostility to Kolya is born of its resistance to acknowledging the fact that its decaying village had long ago ceased to embody Orthodox Christian society with any integrity. The direct hostile confrontations between Islam and Christianity do not involve the village priest at all. They involve Kolya's conflict with his brother and his final meeting with the mysterious stranger. One of the several violent conflicts between the two brothers begins with Fedya's attempt at reconciliation. Kolya's refusal to kiss an Orthodox icon leads to another rupture and fistfight. Fedya is unable to accept Kolya's adherence to a religious law that forbids ritual veneration of the familiar cultural images of Orthodoxy. He is unable to accept adherence to an abstract law, due at least in part to the fact that the abstract law of Christianity has long since ceased to operate in this village community. The conflict between the two brothers continues and can only continue to repeat the structure of aggressivity in specular identification described by Lacan in his early writing on identification, which I will discuss in more detail below.

The mysterious stranger turns out to be the political commissar of the military unit in which Kolya served. Believing Kolya guilty of betrayal, the former commissar has come to execute the criminal. The commissar, however, agent of a political regime that has disappeared, must also find a new identity and, like Kolya, has found it in religion. His acceptance of Christianity, based on a reading of the New Testament, seems at first to be more promising than Fedya's veneration of an icon. The two men have in some sense travelled parallel paths. However, the stranger also insists that Kolya make the sign of the cross, an outwardly visible gesture that is not only a sign but also an image important to an Orthodox Christian. The inability of imaginary identification to transcend the boundary between the concrete image and the abstract sign leads inevitably and inescapably to Kolya's death. (His final word, "Mama," uttered here as a repetition of his first word in the film, illustrates how firmly the imaginary continues to rule even within Kolia's own psyche. His daily prayers – a linguistic system and, thus, essentially symbolic – remain completely separate from daily life. The symbolic functions for Kolya primarily as a refuge from the banality of Russian village life or, at best, as a way to transcend it. The notion that anyone in the village could perhaps understand the essence of his prayer life apparently never enters his mind.) ...