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  • Brother
  • 96 minutes  -  Crime
  • Original title: Brat
  • Director:Aleksey Balabanov
  • Language: Russian
  • Country: Russia

Just discharged from the army, Danila finds it difficult to make a life for himself in the difficult Russian 90s. His mother sends him to St. Petersburg to meet up with his older brother, who is supposedly a successful businessman and who might set the younger sibling on the right path. But what Danila finds in the big city is far seedier and more complicated.

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REVIEW BY Sebastian Gutnik Movie EXPERT
Review posted: 26/08/2013

If you were to ask a Russian to a name a landmark film from the infamous violence-ridden 1990s – the chaotic era that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and was marked by pervasive gang disputes and general economic despair – it would most likely be Alexey Balabanov's Brother. The film defined a decade even before it ended, and even though many directors later took it upon themselves to reflect on this historical era, Brother stands alone as the most gritty and timely example of Russian 90s cinema.

Young Danila, played by the late, iconic Sergei Bodrov, has been freshly discharged from the army. After getting into a fight in his provincial hometown, the police commander orders him to find a job or else face prison time. Danila's mother, disappointed by his lack of ambition, tells him to find his older brother, whom she claims is a successful businessman in St. Petersburg.

"The film defined a decade even before it ended."

Danila ventures into the gigantic, dirty mess of St. Petersburg, a city full of daily displays of racketeering, intimidation, and gang violence. The sense of hopelessness speaks through the film’s grainy cinematography, gloomy streets filled with characters struggling to function in a world which has suddenly stopped working. There, Danila meets the "German," an old street vendor wrecked by repeated gang extortion; "Cat," a punk girl constantly on the lookout for acid and easy money; Sveta, a tram operator with an abusive, alcoholic husband; and, finally, his brother Viktor. He is indeed successful, as a professional hit man for a local gang leader. Having noticed Danila's naiveté and his army-trained firearm skills, Viktor starts using his brother to carry out his own hits for a laughable share of the actual price.

What we instantly notice about Danila is that, even though he solves all his problems with unflinching brutality, his motivations are the ones of a good-hearted child. He solves problems by the playbook of old chivalrous ideals: he protects the weak, shares his possessions with the needy, and helps those who have been wronged against. Essentially, he is no different from the hero of an old Soviet film raised on Soviet ideals, who suddenly opens his eyes to an era in which he can only enforce these ideals in accordance with the laws of the time. When he sees an immigrant refusing to pay for his ticket in the tram, he forces him to do so with a gun. He beats and often kills those intimidating the weak. The city gradually perverts his valiance into an uncontrollable whirlwind of bullets and blood.

In one of the film's most intriguing scenes, Danila stumbles into a gathering of popular rock musicians (playing themselves in the film), just a floor away from the apartment where he is about to carry out a hit. This dichotomy may seem exaggerated to the Western viewer, but it is indeed a believable phenomenon of the 90s: apartment gatherings – so-called "квартирники/kvartirniki" – for lack of cafés and bars, have been a long-standing tradition of the Russian artistic intelligentsia; while gang violence quite often did not take place out on the streets, but painfully close to people's homes, thus becoming a never-fading part of daily Russian life.

"Brother shows a national and personal mindset adapting to a sudden lack of rules."

While Danila is taciturn, speaking only when absolutely necessary and awkwardly child-like, the characters around him reflect various shades of the contemporary Russian language. “Cat” extensively uses youth slang, with words like "оттопыримся/ottopyrimsya" (get high), "синька/sin'ka" (booze), and "бабки/babki" instead of the common "деньги/den'gi" for “money." Viktor, like many Russians in the 90s, has incorporated the English word "business" into his speech, which can, quite comically, mean absolutely anything that relates to making money. Viktor's employer, a ruthless gang leader, constantly uses proverbial rhymes, showcasing how cynical and empty these old folk wisdoms sound in light of the harsh reality of the 90s. The meaning of these proverbs becomes fittingly distorted when he uses them to comment on murder and rape. For example: "Бери ношу по себе, чтоб не падать при ходьбе/Beri noshu po sebe, shtob ne padat' pri khod'be" (Choose a load you can carry, so you won't fall when you walk) or "Поживешь подольше — увидишь побольше/Pozhivyosh' podol'she - uvidesh pobol'she" (The longer you live, the more you'll see).

Brother shows a national and personal mindset adapting to a sudden lack of rules. It does not shatter, but rather naturally adapts, blends in, reacts in the only way it can to the sudden abolition of both purpose and the past.