Russia, 2001, 87 minutes, Color
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Roman Kachanov
Screenplay: Ivan Okhlobystin and Roman Kachanov
Cinematography: Mikhail Mukasei
Music: DJ Groove
With: Fedor Bondarchuk, Ivan Okhlobystin, Anna Buklovskaia, Aleksandr Bashirov, and Mikhail Vladimirov
Studio: Film Studio.Ru
"Down," derived from the name of Down's syndrome, has become a Russian slang term for idiot. It marks one of the characteristics for which the critics have almost unanimously lambasted the film: it is constructed with the kind of childishly moronic humor that depends on sexual inadequacies, bodily functions, and public humiliation for its material. Kachanov's and Okhlobystin's script seems to be written for an audience of sniggering schoolboys who will seemingly never tire of yet another reference to farting, masturbation, or impotence. As the thematic scope widens to include pedophilia, murder, and cannibalism, it is not difficult to understand why the critics have reacted so violently to what seems to be a deliberately and aggressively offensive film. The reaction has been all the stronger for another, related reason: it travesties a classic work of nineteenth-century Russian literature. The offense against good taste is compounded by an offense against the dignity of the nation's literary heritage.
In all the critical hullabaloo, a small break with cinematic convention has gone virtually unnoticed. The film version of a literary work will normally indicate in the opening credits that it is based on (Russian: po motivam) such-and-such a work by such-and-such a writer. Nowhere in the opening credits of Down House are we told that the film is based on Dostoevskii's novel. We are merely given an image of the famous author's visage alongside the title of the film, much as a modern-day writer's head shot might be provided on the dust-jacket of his latest historical potboiler. It suggests that the project of Kachanov and Okhlobystin is more ambitious than even the most negative critics realized. Down House is not based on Dostoevskii's novel at all; Down House quite simply is Dostoevskii's Idiot, reissued in visual form for a twenty-first-century audience.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the critical reception of the film bears witness to the success of the endeavor. The music is both annoying and mesmerizing—it sucks the viewer into the quickly developing action at the beginning of the film, but ultimately seems intent on turning the viewer into a Myshkin-like zombie. The plot begins in a tightly organized fashion, but the proliferation of characters and narrative lines soon slows the film down into a meandering and aimless chain of absurdities. The childishly frivolous tone of the film contrasts with a highly stylized text and a self-consciously unnatural acting style on the part of all the performers. The film is disorienting in a way not unlike that of Dostoevskii's novel itself. The canonization of The Idiot as a masterpiece written by a genius has blinded its twenty-first-century guardians to the way in which many of Dostoevskii's contemporaries ridiculed the entire book upon its publication: its characters were unrealistic, its plot devices completely unbelievable, and its narrative structure unbearably disorganized and full of irrelevancies. Only decades later were readers ready to accept Dostoevskii's own vision of his epileptic protagonist as Russian Christ and national saint. The character as portrayed in his text was as alienating as Fedor Bondarchuk's dancing Myshkin. In this sense, Kachanov and Okhlobystin have succeeded in bringing new vitality to a dusty classic. It may be wise to let the dust resettle before condemning the film to the trash.
Roman Kachanov was born in 1967 and is the son of Roman Kachanov Sr., an accomplished and well-known director of animation films. He studied in the screenwriting department of the Cinema Institute (VGIK) in Moscow. Kachanov's first major work was the script for Nonsense, A Story About Nothing, a film directed by Ivan Okhlobystin, with whom he has collaborated in almost all of his cinematic work. After making two feature films in the early 1990s, Kachanov went into advertising and was the author of almost a dozen animation films before receiving notoriety for the award-winning film DMB in 2000. Kachanov had the idea for Down House while making DMB and began work on it soon after.
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