Combining macabre humour with his signature iconoclastic bravado, Aleksey Balabanov’s nihilistic 1997 gangster film looked to examine the strained dichotomy between Russia’s Soviet past and the country’s transition to capitalism and democracy. The film’s protagonist Danila (Sergey Bodrov, Jr.) travels to St Petersburg after finishing his military service to visit his seemingly successful older brother. Unbeknownst to Danila, his brother turns out to be a professional hitman and pulls his sibling into the city’s criminal underworld.
The film’s instant domestic success was surprising: for starters, Brother is more arthouse than action. Essentially, Balabanov made an experimental film under the guise of a blockbuster. Part of its popularity was down to the fact that it shattered any respectable international image of Russia, revealing the less glamorous and more relatable reality of the 90s; the principled hitman encapsulates a generation thrown into stasis and instability.
Three years later, it was followed by a worthy sequel, Brother 2. Genre-defying and gritty, it’s extraordinary to think that Balabanov’s films emerged onto screens that decades before were reserved for polite propaganda. He deconstructed all tenets of Soviet ideology and changed the face of Russian cinema, serving subversive and gripping movies that exposed the challenges of the 90s, in a way that many Russians hadn’t seen before.
MUBI’s new special, Russian Dark: The Films of Aleksey Balabanov, is a comprehensive introduction to his oeuvre. Cult favourite, Brother, is the obligatory starting point, you can follow this with The Castle, his 1994 literary adaptation of an unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, and Me Too, his poetic 2012 film which follows a group of people as they try to reach a paranormal bell tower and which was released shortly before his death in 2013.
Watch on MUBI.