A tremendous work whose greatness steadily accumulates, Vladimir Khotinenko’s Muslim (Musulmanin) embraces the complexity of both familial and village life, and places these in an urgent moral context. Its protagonist is Nikolai (“Kolya”) Ivanov, who has returned to his rural home a hero, having spent seven years as a prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan. While in captivity, the soldier converted to Islam, and the film records his readjustment to peasant family and farming community, as well as the reactions that his alien religious devotion elicits. Superbly written by Valeri Zalotukha and color cinematographed by Aleksei Rodionov, Muslim won for Khotinenko the Special Grand Prize of the Jury at the Montréal World Film Festival and, for its brilliant young lead, Yevgeni Mironov, the best actor prize of the Russian film critics.
The film opens in what deceptively seems a spirit of joy. Tall, slender Kolya, with his prayer shawl covering his neck and draping his shoulders, is striding through a sunlit, grassy field, on his way home. He is singing; his paean fills the air. But the words of his sung prayer reflect the experience of war in Kolya’s recent past; one lyric beseeches God to protect Muslims from those who would assault them, as the Soviet army, to which Kolya belonged, did in Afghanistan, a Muslim nation, which it invaded in 1979. The unwinnable nature of the war, which made the invading army (as in Vietnam) the target of guerrillas, the Muslim freedom fighters, the mujahadeen, had a number of consequences. One is the frustration level of the Soviet soldiers, who as a result resorted to committing unspeakable atrocities against Afghan soldiers and civilians. Another, of course, was the eventual widespread unpopularity of the war at home, which contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union four years prior to the appearance of Khotinenko’s film, which therefore resonates with this history and ironic outcome.
However, there are ironies more specific to Kolya that his opening journey through the fields ignites as the film unfolds. A Christian who has been reborn as a Muslim, at the outset Kolya seems the very image of confidence, integrity and assured identity—like Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper, the highland lass who, singing while at work in the Scottish fields, appears to Wordsworth the foot traveler to be at one with her work, with no shred of discrepancy left over for personal anxiety, even pertaining to the eventuality of death. But why is Kolya going home at all then, venturing into his Christian past? He later says that God told him to do this. This strikes analytical us as sheer rationalization. Kolya is homesick, so he has (unconsciously) invoked God to provide a rationale for his doing what he desires to do, what his former self wishes to do, and this need of his to rationalize undercuts the integrity of our first glimpse of the boy. Despite appearances, Kolya is, in fact, at odds with himself—a point that his two names, his Russian one and his new Muslim one, Abdulla, hammers home. Indeed, at one point Khotinenko poignantly dissolves from a photograph of the innocent Christian boy that Kolya once was to a closeup of Kolya, in the flesh, in a field—the former warrior, Afghan captive and, now, Muslim that he has become.
Why did Kolya become a Muslim anyhow? We may speculate an overidentification with his captors to compensate for the discombobulated self wrought by captivity. It is also possible that Kolya’s conversion implies a repudiation of his side’s torture and killing of Afghan Muslims. Back home, a stranger, a Russian, shadows him. We later learn that this man’s mission is to assassinate Kolya for desertion. That the “hero” may in fact be a deserter contributes to the theme of the madness of war, and the extent to which civilian perception of war mismatches the reality; but it also lends credibility to the idea that Kolya’s religious conversion, on one level, sought to stabilize an identity that war’s cruelty and viciousness had tossed into chaos.
It is also the case that Kolya’s memory of his own home life lacked the capacity to calm him during the ordeal of his separation and captivity. The horrific experience of war doesn’t wipe out and replace extant problems in one’s life. At least in Kolya’s case, war adds to and perhaps even deepens these problems. Kolya returns home to the chaotic life he had left behind to go to war. His mother, Sonia (Nina Usatova, marvelous*), loves both her sons, handsome Kolya and his older brother, Fedya; but Kolya is the one she dotes on. Silent, for the most part, upon his return to the village, Kolya nevertheless warmly mutters “Mama!” at the sight of his devoted mother in loving hysterics at having her dear boy back home. However, Kolya’s relationship with Fedya is more complex. When Fedya hugs him, a villager notes that he used to beat Kolya—a sign of the older brother’s jealousy, which Kolya’s current status as war hero can only enrage. Indeed, in Kolya’s absence, we learn, Fedya attempted to appropriate the girlfriend, Vera, whom Kolya had left behind. Before long, a war of a kind erupts between brothers, as Fedya tries to reassert the advantage that being the elder brother, in his mind, confers on him—a distinction now meaningless to Kolya, because of the ordeal away from home that he has undergone. Thus, for perhaps the first time, Kolya responds in kind to one of his brother’s frustrated assaults, nearly bludgeoning Fedya to death, in a reaction that provides a powerful index of his immersion in war and its diversion of his passive, gentle nature. In another sense, we see the calm façade of Kolya’s Muslim identity erode and implode, exposing the violent Christian—the identification that war has helped forge in his mind—just below the surface. This alters our view of the recurrent shots of the young convert praying in the fields, seemingly in harmony with nature. Kolya’s outburst of near lethal violence gives an edge of desperation to these moments. Calm isn’t what Kolya has achieved; it’s what he longs for.
A particular family incident encapsulates the sorry state of the homefront and its extension of the war. In Kolya’s absence, fearing the worst, the boys’ father and Sonia’s husband hanged himself. Unconsciously, Fedya more than likely blames Kolya for his father’s suicide, again deepening the longstanding quarrel between brothers; it is just as likely, and in his case perhaps not so unconsciously, that Kolya blames himself. When he returns and is told of his father’s fate, a painfully brief point-of-view shot indicates Kolya’s eyeing the hook from which his father hanged himself. This is a reminder of the wide net of horror that war unfolds. For Fedya (who served a prison term while his brother was away), though, the family tragedy may be more complex; he also is riddled with guilt. Why is he not lovable like Kolya? (He certainly isn’t; but who can say that this isn’t the result of his feeling less loved than his brother?) Why was his own presence insufficient to compensate for Kolya’s absence and feared fate? Why did he prove inadequate to the task of keeping his father alive? It is Fedya who has had to bear the burden of Sonia’s suffering: the loss of a mate compounding the feared loss of the favored son. Eventually, Fedya succumbs to family precedent by hanging himself from the same hook in the ceiling beams—only, in his case, he is rescued by his brother. In a second outburst of violence, Kolya arduously tears out the hook with his bare hands. In a sense, it’s a futile symbolical attempt to undo the war and its consequences.
Throughout the film, the land is visually portrayed as a source of strength for members of the farming community. But the village leader, beset with greed, is selling the land, parcel by parcel, to wealthy business interests in Moscow, moving the villagers toward eviction. The intrusion of and the shift to capitalism (encapsulated by the U.S. dollars that are replacing rubles even in this small rural village) represent the ultimate price that the Soviet war with Afghanistan exacted: the dissolution of the socialist state. Therefore, Zalotukha and Khotinenko have shrewdly Chinese-boxed the family drama of the Ivanovs inside the broader national drama.
The finale is terribly ironical, deeply disturbing and utterly unmerciful, as befits the film’s tragic dimension. The stranger who has been shadowing Nikolai makes himself known. He won’t kill him, he explains, because he has converted to Christianity. Thus the religious experience of this man parallels that of Nikolai, to whom he explains that the New Testament has transformed his existence, precluding killing even a deserter. As a favor to him, won’t Kolya make a sign of the cross to seal their détente? On principle, Kolya cannot do this, so the “reborn” Christian shoots him dead. At the last, Muslim delivers a slashing critique of religion’s—in particular, Christianity’s—contribution to violence and war, humanity’s most enormous orchestration of violence. We are left limp; Nikolai Ivanov survived so much, only to die this brusquely and absurdly. War.
* Another superb performance is given by Ivan Bortnik, who plays Kolya’s loving godfather.
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