The Outskirts, directed by Petr Lutsik, is a movie of heroic angles, solemn performances, and declamatory dialogue—as well as a sensational pastiche of early Soviet talkies. The title is cribbed from a 1933 Boris Barnet feature made to celebrate agricultural collectivization, although the mood is more Dovzhenko. Somewhere beyond the Urals, a hardy band of peasants venture out into the wide world. Who sold the farm? How, these long-suffering muzhiks want to know, did they lose “the collective called Homeland”?
Roaming the steppe, camping in a tent made from their greatcoats, dispensing all manner of earthy peasant bromides, the dogged vigilantes search for the villains who betrayed them. The mode is straight-faced and absurd. The men drag their former chairman from his cabin and—in a spectacle of dispassionate vengeance—dunk him in the icy lake until he joins their band and identifies the “enterpriser” to whom he assigned the collective. This post-Soviet sharpie is packing up his car and family to make his escape when the glum avengers arrive at his doorstep, torturing him while holding his children hostage. Ultimately, Mrs. Enterpriser grabs a gun and shoots one. Increasingly violent (although always distanced), The Outskirts is at once appalling and bleakly humorous.
Snow is gently falling when the muzhiks arrive in the city, looking for the apparatchik who approved the enterpriser’s deal. Suddenly African tribesmen rise out of the grass. It’s an old-fashioned montage joke—the peasants are shown impassively watching a motion picture screen—that signals a shift in the movie’s temporal references. A slow-moving motorcycle carries the band back into prehistory. “It’s like an Egyptian pyramid,” they declare of one venerable Moscow skyscraper before building themselves a campfire outside. In some uncanny and ridiculous fashion, the muzhiks are re-embodying the shadows of their forgotten ancestors, just like the movie.
Lutsik’s first feature is astonishingly precise in its effects and performances. The black-and-white film stock was specially produced to evoke the movies of the ’30s; much of the musical score was swiped from Chapayev (1934). As a pastiche artist, Lutsik recalls Guy Maddin, but his jokes are even drier. Nostalgia cuts two ways. “Now in Russia, every television channel shows the old Soviet movies,” the filmmaker told a Western interviewer. “There was a time in my life when you could not see them at all. Today young people, old people, everybody wants to watch them because the emotion is so intense and much more interesting than the new Russian cinema.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, The Outskirts has never been shown on Russian TV; according to the movie’s Russian distributor, “they say that it will cause a revolution.” Indeed, once the peasants penetrate the corridors of power and come face to face with their gloating new master, the movie takes Russian history full circle. It’s October once more, even if the concluding Stalinist cliché of tractors across the land suggests one more unpleasant turn of the dialectic.