Cannes 2013 Review – The Major

Playing in competition in the Critics' Week, director Yuri Bykov's sophomore film The Major  was not a major discovery (no pun intended), but still a very human look at the moral questions the main characters have to wrestle with as the result of an unfortunate accident. Plus it's also fun and somewhat surreal to be plunged into the cold of middle-of-nowhere Siberia when outside the sun is heating up the Croisette.

When police major Sergey Sobolev (Denis Shvedov) gets a call that his wife has gone into labor, he rushes to the hospital. On a desolate road, driving way too fast, he hits a young boy crossing the road, killing him instantly. With the boy's mother a witness, Sergey now has to decide what to do: face prison time or try to cover up the incident. In a panic, he decides to do the latter and calls in two colleagues. Upon arrival, they cook their story and trick the mother into incriminating herself. Back at the police station and upon instigation of a superior, Sergey is put in hold for show, while another officer forces the mother, in the presence of her husband, to sign a statement saying it was her fault. The husband protests, but is given a clear and violent message that he should back down and let things be. Apparently, the message isn't clear enough, as the husband later returns to the station armed, taking two officers hostage and demanding to see Sobolev. In the meantime, Sergey's conscience is getting the better of him. When the standoff with the husband ends in two more deaths, and a threat to finish off the mother as well, Sergey decides to make things as right as possible and save the woman, pitting himself against his friends and colleagues.

Upon introducing the film to the audience, Bykov said that the film shouldn't be seen as an indictment, but as a portrait of how normal people can react and overreact in stressful situations, only using the police corruption as a framework for the story of tough choices. And while in the opening scenes it's hard to look past the corruption involved in trying to sweep the incident under the rug, as the film progresses the characters become more than one-dimensional, each of them facing their own doubts and decisions. Only Sergey's direct superior, referred to as the Colonel, is given the typical role of ruthless crime boss telling his minions to bury the incident at any cost, basically spelling out that they must execute both parents of the unfortunate boy.

A strong trio consisting of Shvedov, Irina Nizina as the mother, and director Bykov as Sergey's colleague anchors the film, each well equipped to convey the doubt about their decisions and the pain in having to make them. Shvedov and Bykov both have a hulking presence (think Matthias Schoenaerts), showing a sadness and melancholy in their eyes that makes you side with them up to a point, regardless of their actions. Nothing is simply black or white in this Siberian outback, save the snow. The desolate surroundings almost become a character themselves, underlining the harsh environment that can drive people to desperate actions. It's a bleak film, albeit with a hopeful ending, on human fallibility. Perhaps not the most original subject, but when done well this should not matter. A welcome entry in the resurging Russian cinema.