Naidyonov could be called the tank whisperer.
He seems to have the mystical power to commune with armored vehicles,
but his environment is pure blood and guts.
War is still war, except more so on the Eastern Front in Karen Shakhnazarov’s
White Tiger (trailer here), which Russia has
chosen as their official submission for this year’s foreign language Academy
to put the debacle of last year’s submission (Friend of Putin Nikita Mikhalkov’s
universally panned Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel)
behind them, Russia has opted for another well-connected standard bearer in Mosfilm
head Shakhnazarov. However, in this case
the quality of the film and the director’s critical reputation represent a
considerable step up.
through the remains of a routed Russian tank division, soldiers find a charred
driver who is somehow still breathing.
Despite suffering severe burns to ninety percent of his body, the tank
mechanic makes a full recovery, except for his acute amnesia. Rechristened Ivan Naidoyonov (“found Ivan,”
roughly), he is sent back to the tank corps.
He is a whiz at fixing and operating tanks, but he is a little
spooky. Naidyonov claims tanks speak to
him and even starts preying to the “God of tanks” enthroned in the big garage
in the sky. Yet, he is just the man to
track down and destroy the white German super tank that seemingly materializes
out of nowhere to wreak destruction on blindsided armored columns.
Naidyonov it is personal. The spirits of
the destroyed tanks have spoken to him about the White Tiger. So perfect are its maneuvers, he is convinced
its crew is “dead.” He can sense it
before it appears and it seems to be hunting specifically for him.
White Tiger might sound like
Life of Pi in a tank, but at every
battlefield juncture, Shakhnazarov chooses grit over woo-woo. Everyone thinks Naidyonov is nuts, but they
secretly suspect there might be something to him, particularly Major Fedotov,
the counter-intelligence officer in charge of the hunt for the White Tiger. The
resulting vibe is like The Big Red One as
re-written by Melville.
his studio’s resources at his disposal, Shakhnazarov stages some fantastic tank
battles, vividly conveying their force and limitations. During the first two acts, White Tiger is a completely original, totally
engrossing war film. Strangely though,
the final third is largely dominated by completely unrelated scenes of the
German surrender and Hitler’s ruminations in the face of defeat. It is like White Tiger won the war, but lost the peace. Still, since it is a war movie, the former is
Naidyonov and his obsession are center stage, White Tiger is genuinely riveting, with a good measure of credit
due to its primary leads. Aleksey
Vertkov is perfect as Naidyonov. Refraining
from distractingly ticky or showy behavior, he is compellingly “off” in a way
that could believably be recycled back into the Soviet war machine. Even though in reality his character would
have probably been purged halfway through the film, Vitaliy Kishchenko’s work
as the square-jawed Fedotov is similarly smart, understated, and intense.
It is hard to understand why Shakhnazarov would
establish such a powerfully focused mood, only to break it up down the
stretch. Still, White Tiger boasts two excellent performances and some impressive
warfighting sequences, which is more than many of its fellow contenders can offer. Academy voters certainly love them some WWII,
so it is probably worth keeping an eye on.
Shakhnazarov has also had American distribution for past films like Vanished Empire, so White Tiger should have international legs. Regardless of its flaws, White Tiger is a film of considerable merit that ought to find an
Labels: 85th Academy Awards Foreign Language Submissions, Karen Shakhnazarov, Russian Cinema, WWII Cinema