Pete on the Way to Heaven

[Petia po doroge v Tsarstvie Nebesnoe]

Russia, 2009
Color, 97 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Nikolai Dostal'
Screenplay: Mikhail Kuraev (based on his 1991 novella)
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Direction: Alim Matveichuk
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Sound: Daler Khasanov
Cast: Egor Pavlov, Aleksandr Korshunov, Roman Madianov, Svetlana Timofeeva- Letunovskaia, Evgenii Red'ko, Svetlana Ulybina, Nikolai Machul'skii
Executive Producer: Svetlana Bezgan
Producer: Fedor Popov
Production: Stella Studio

These program notes should contain no obvious spoilers, as the title Pete on the Way to Heaven clearly discloses the film’s plot trajectory. The film, set in 1953, tells the story of Petia (played by Egor Pavlov in his debut role), a mentally retarded youth in a prison-camp town outside of Murmansk. Despite his mental shortcomings, the physically giant Petia is treated as a fully functioning member of society: he carries out his duties as a transport guard almost too well, often to the dismay of others who are not as focused on following official protocols so closely.

Appropriate for this year’s symposium theme “From Art-House to Cine-Plex,” the film firmly fits into the art-house distinction, as it avoids popular narrative devices. Although it could be classified within the genre of the historical drama, the film does not take great pains to generate a coherent fictional plot alongside the historical backdrop, nor does it provide any character depth or development whatsoever. Rather, Pete on the Way to Heaven is best viewed as a period piece, but without the drama. In this venture, the film tries to find room for stereotypical markers of Stalinism: it integrates discussions of the doctors’ plot, features lengthy scenes of party meetings and state speeches, as well as devotes several scenes to the marching of political prisoners through town. Many of these episodes do not exist to drive the plot forward, but instead offer a glimpse of the historical past through Petia-the-bystander and his understanding of this landscape. In this sense, Pete on the Way to Heaven can be viewed as a continuation of Nikolai Dostal'’s line of recent historical projects, many of which take to task uncovering the overlooked areas of Soviet history or viewing already well-known events through novel points of view.

Many reviews of the film are quick to point out Petia’s role in the film as the fool (iurodivyi), who garners sympathy and love from those around him. A much different, and perhaps far more interesting link, would be to compare Petia with the positive hero. Here, it is precisely Petia’s mental deficiencies that cast him as a perfect Stalinist positive hero. He is solely a corporeal figure, the embodiment of the Soviet state who towers above all other characters and is physically better equipped; of course he lacks the mental capacity to read beyond simple messages and orders, but this mental retardation is for Petia an ideal form of social consciousness, simply because he cannot interpret meaning outside of what he is told by his authorities. It is by no means a coincidence that both Petia and Stalin die on the same day in the film, and both figures are equally grieved by Petia’s mother.

At the same time, Petia can also be seen as yet another example of the scores of deficient male heroes in recent Russian cinema, but he is different in that he is not the brooding intellectual who seeks to understand the chaos and fragmentary world that surrounds him. Petia instead accepts everything as fact, highlighted in a scene when he asks his superior if his request for a gun order has been fulfilled, to which he receives the answer that they only have guns with bullets, but none without, as Petia had requested. Taking this answer at face value, Petia carries a wooden-carved gun, emblematic of the false authority he possesses in town.

Pete on the Way to Heaven 
does not offer any new historical insight into the period of Stalinism, but should be valued more for the way it is shot. It is not the action of events that push this film forward, but rather the cinematography. The landscape of the town and the surrounding countryside are given great attention, often from distinct angles, such as bird’s eye views or tracking shots from passing vehicles. The landscape is carefully framed toward the close of the film. As Petia and fellow soldiers ski through the woods to capture an escaped prisoner, the stillness and barrenness of the land add to the heightening tension of the scene. The music similarly shapes the film: the looped orchestral soundtrack, which earlier accompanied the lighthearted scenes of Petia’s simple misconceptions, by the end gleefully and ironically drives our hero toward his impending doom. These aspects of Dostal'’s film were clearly well received, as it won the Grand Prix at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival in 2009.

Nikolai Dostal' (1946- ):
Son of the film director Nikolai Vladimirovich Dostal', Nikolai Nikolaevich was born in Moscow. He first acted in films in the 1960s and 1970s, and then began his education in screenwriting and directing in 1970. Dostal' graduated in 1981 from the Advanced Courses for Screenwriters and Directors at Moscow State University, where he studied under the tutelage of Georgii Daneliia. Since then, he has written and directed a number of TV mini-series and feature films at Mosfil'm Studio. In April of 2010, Dostal' was amongst a group of several other prominent Russian filmmakers who voiced their opposition to Nikita Mikhalkov’s current running of the Union of Filmmakers.

2011 Schism (TV mini-series)
2009 Pete on the Way to Heaven
2007 Lenin’s Testament (TV mini-series)
2005 Kolia Rolling in the Fields
2004 The Penal Battalion (TV mini-series)
2003 Stiletto (TV mini-series)
2001 Citizen Boss (TV mini-series)
1997 Cops and Robbers
1995 Petty Demon
1992 A Small Giant of a Large Sex
1991 Clouds of Heaven
1989 I’m Okay
1987 Shura and Prosvirniak
1985 Man with an Accordion
1981 Waiting for the Cold Snap and the Snow

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