VOR (Pavel Chukhraj, 1997)

The grown narrator is Sanja. Pavel Chukhraj’s Vor (The Thief) opens with a pan of frozen terrain. Down a lonely road walks Katja, a suitcase in one hand, a satchel in the other. A sudden closeup shows the girl’s face contorted in pain; it could be a shot from a war film, where the character has been shelled. But, no, she is giving birth; we see her hand squeezing mud. A mistake? (Could such cold earth yield this ooze?) No; in Vor, little is going to be what it appears to be. Sanja: “I was born just after the war, in 1946.” His father, a soldier, died of wounds six months before he was born.
     When Sanja is six, Katja couples with tall, strong Tolyan. Wide-eyed Sanja idolizes him. Tolyan becomes Sanja’s protector, but his violence in this capacity dents the idol, at least for us. Sanja’s reappraisal of Tolyan proves a longer, more intimate and painful process. Tolyan abandons Katja to death and Sanja to orphanage, scrounging, theft. An immense fog swallowing up certainty relates Sanja’s sense of abandonment and betrayal to the nation’s.
     Tolyan is a thief who, manipulating his loyalty, turns Sanja into a criminal accomplice. A tattoo of Stalin is on Tolyan’s chest. Tolyan explains to Sanja that Stalin is his father, meaning (although Sanja misunderstands) that Tolyan also is an orphan whose only “father” is the nation’s father. It is pointless, and reductive, to try to draw exact correspondencies between Stalin and Tolyan. Chukhraj hasn’t written and directed a schematic film, but, instead, one imbued with a powerful feeling of loss, abandonment, betrayal. Ultimately, it refers to the whole enterprise of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet state, of which Stalin was only a part. Tolyan, too, is lost, abandoned, betrayed. He dies that way.

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