Even assassins have a childhood, laying the moral groundwork for the future man. In Siberian Education, Italian director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) forcefully describes the early years of a future Russian soldier, growing up as part of a violent clan in a multi-ethnic, dirt-poor town created by Stalin for criminal outcasts. While all the elements are in place for an easy shoot-em-up, there’s no wicked winking at the audience’s secret bloodlust as in Tarantino or Gangs of Wasseypur. The film is mainly an engrossing duet between the young hero and his guru-grandfather, played with clipped precision and power-laden ice by John Malkovich. Given the strength of the script and acting, the English-language film looks set to travel well, even though one waits in vain for the atmosphere to catch fire emotionally and carry one away.
Based on a much-translated memoir by Nicolai Lilin, a Russian-born author who writes in Italian, the story is set in the extraordinary, vanishing community of the Urkas, a traditional group of Siberian bandits displaced far from home in Stalin’s day to a western region near Moldavia. Their non-materialistic tradition emphasizes loyalty and respect for women and children, the elderly, disabled and all living creatures — excluding their police and army antagonists, who are always fair game.
Like the aged Marlon Brando pottering around in his garden after retiring from the mafia, Malkovich’s stiff-backed, high-collared grandfather spends his time joyously freeing doves from his dovecot and having power saunas with the tattooed band of “Siberians.” They seem to be in control of the territory, making off with stolen goods in a slippery car chase in the snow, their little red car comically pursued by a tiny police car. At no point do they have trouble hoodwinking or out-numbering the fuzz.
Grandfather is devoutly religious and little 7-year-old Kolyma watches him pray before icons at the family altar. Yet his clearly spoken words have a blasphemous ring: He prays for the “honest criminals” to conquer their enemies — the police, bankers and the people in government. The last two categories seem aimed at striking a chord of sympathy in Italian audiences, but this is as far as Salvatores and his award-winning Italian screenwriters Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia run with contemporary references.
Heir to the criminal dynasty, Kolyma is a solemn, wide-eyed child who absorbs his teacher’s every word. The clan firmly rejects materialism and its arcane rituals, including not keeping money in the house but burying it in the back yard, a point that will be brought into play later in the film. As in the early days of the mafia, drugs are taboo, and a man found dealing heroin is ritually punished. Meanwhile Kolyma and his best friend Gagarin are given switchblades at a tender age and taught to kill with them, using pig carcasses for practice.
Sentimental education begins with adolescence and the arrival of the frail beauty Xenia (Eleanor Tomlinson) in town. Kolyma (Arnas Fedaravicius) falls for the pretty redhead at first sight, before realizing she’s unhinged or, as grandfather puts it, “chosen by God.” The Siberian clan protects her and respects women, unlike other bands: the Georgians, the Odessa Jews and the hated Black Seeds, who are in collusion with the police. When Gagarin is seduced by their drugs and prostitution lifestyle, Kolyma stiffens his back like grandpa and breaks off their friendship.
Everything is told in a series of flashbacks from the future, when Kolyma has, incredibly, donned the camouflage uniform of the Russian army to fight Muslim guerrillas in Chechnya. His Siberian education has trained him well for the atrocities the army orders him to commit, though he has a hidden agenda that ends the film on a note of moral retribution instead of a bloodbath.
The extended cast, mostly actors from Lithuania where the film was shot, are convincing and well-directed. Though young Fedaravicius makes a strong hero who exudes a sense of inner power without grandstanding, and Tomlinson offers a few new twists on the flighty, unpredictable Russian heroine, it’s the philosopher/storyteller Malkovich who steals the show. When he tells Kolyma the fable of the starving wolf who lets himself be domesticated for food and loses his self-respect forever, a door opens on a foreign tradition.
Other noteworthy performances are Vilius Tumalavicius as the despairing Gagarin who falls into hell after leaving the clan’s tradition, and Peter Stormare as homicidal tattoo artist Ink.
Production designer Rita Rabassini creates a memorable world for Italo Petriccione’s cinematography, which the non-Cinemascope screen seems too small to contain.
Venue: Nuovo Olimpia Cinema, Rome, Feb. 28, 2013.
A 01 Distribution release of a Cattleya, Rai Cinema production
Cast: John Malkovich, Arnas Fedaravicius, Eleanor Tomlinson, Vilius Tumalavicius, Jonas Trukanas, Vitalji Porsnev, Peter Stormare
Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Screenwriters: Stefano Rulli, Sandro Petraglia, Gabriele Salvatores based on a novel by Nicolai Lilin
Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Delegate producer: Gina Gardini
Executive producers: Matteo De Laurentiis
Director of photography: Italo Petriccione
Production designer: Rita Rabassini
Costumes: Patrizia Chericoni
Editor: Massimo Fiocchi
Music: Mauro Pagani
No rating, 110 minutes.