The Moscow Times
George Faraday, Aleksandr Chernykh

Vladimir Khotinenko's new film, Musulmanin (Moslem) is a bold but nonetheless flawed attempt to come to grips with moral dilemmas facing a post-imperial Russia.

It tells the story of a veteran from the Afghan War who returns home to Russia after being captured by the mujahedin and converting to Islam. But the work is not centrally concerned with the real problems facing returning veterans; rather, it takes a symbol, which, like Vietnam for Americans, is charged with painful emotions, to explore the moral state of Russia today.

The film's premiere Friday at Moscow's Dom Kino was eagerly awaited in Russian film circles, where Khotinenko is acknowledged as a leading light among the new generation of filmmakers. Khotinenko's last film, Makarov, which won four prizes at the Nika awards, was also an analysis of post-Soviet Russia as seen through the symbolism of a poet who gets himself a pistol.

For Musulmanin, Khotinenko assembled many of the brightest talents in Russian film, with Yevgeny Mironov – who starred in Todorovsky's acclaimed Lyubov (Love) – in the lead role, and Aleksei Rodionov, who worked on the British film Orlando, as director of photography. The movie was scripted by Valery Zalotukha, who collaborated with Khotinenko on Makarov.

The main character, Kolya, comes back to his native village after a seven-year absence to find a society whose moral values have crumbled. His father has hanged himself; his brother – played, in one of the movie's best performances, by Aleksandr Baluyev – is a drunkard; his girlfriend (Yevdokiya Ghermanova) has become a prostitute. Even his kind-hearted mother (Nina Usatova) is stealing state property. From the local boss, who is busily enriching himself by selling off the village's land, and all the way down, all are united in a scramble for money. And yet, despite their demoralization and corruption, the villagers consider themselves Christian, and when Kolya returns to live among them conflicts begin.

But Khotinenko does not allow us simply to place all our sympathies with Kolya. For instance, in one scene at his father's grave, Kolya rejects his mother's plea to drink to the dead man's memory. The villagers may have lost all principles but, with their sins and their passions, they are still (all too) human, whereas, in his single-minded religiosity, Kolya seems to have lost a part of his humanity. Thus the film dramatizes one of the central conflicts in Russian culture – that between the corruption and compromise of daily life and the inhuman purity of utopian ideals.

The chief shortcoming of the movie lies in a lack of stylistic clarity which stems from Khotinenko's attempt to portray what is essentially a moral parable by giving a naturalistic depiction of life in a contemporary Russian village. As a result, Mironov plays the part of Kolya as if he were an actual Moslem rather than the bearer of an abstract idea. This excessive realism gives the actor little space to portray within his own character the conflict between the demands of his faith and those of the people around him, thus blunting the power of the film. The most effective scenes are the few which are clearly allegorical – for instance, when the corrupt local boss (Pyotr Zaichenko) is confronted by a giant pig's head rising out of the darkness.

Musulmanin may be criticized for sharing in the Russian tendency to put the delivery of a didactic message ahead of entertainment. Nevertheless, thanks to its overall professionalism and powerful central theme, the film is well worth watching.