Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:19 pm 
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Picaresque gem of a boy living by his wits

1 April 2005

Schizo (Shiza) is the picaresque tale of a fifteen-year-old boy branded as nuts, who gives up on his mom and school and runs with his mom's boyfriend, a petty tough guy and crooked fight promoter. At school he got the nickname, "Shiza," but he turns out to be smart, tough, and humane – a powerful combination at any age. His real name is Mustapha (the slinky, smiling young actor's called Oldzhas Nusupbayev, all these people are Kazaks and the film is in Russian), and he has more of the criminal psychopath in him – there are signs that his sense of right and wrong is a bit loose – but whatever roughness he has is mitigated by the kindness he shows when a guy he's helped recruit to fight gets killed and Schizo takes on the dead fighter's girlfriend and her little boy as his responsibility and his new family.

This is the best rough crime adventure storytelling on film since the Chinese Blind Shaft. The boy is lean and dark and graceful and his face has a Slavic Mogul beauty, and it's impassive till he shows his big sudden smile. This is pure narrative without introspection, and the fun of it, what makes it fresh and newly minted from shot to shot, is that we don't know what Mustapha has inside, so everything that happens – his determination, stamina, and spirit, his willingness to take on poses like a pair of dark glasses and a cigarette dangling from the corner of the mouth in a mirror (a bit like Belmondo mimicking Bogie in Godard's Breathless) – is all a gift. Like a true picaresque anti-hero Mustapha is a social reject, but capable of blending in anywhere and slipping by without lasting damage.

In the opening scene Mustapha's mom takes him to a doctor, a boorish chap all done up in stiff whites like a sous-chef. It seems she's bought the idea that her son's defective, because she's going to save up for him to get treatment. But her boyfriend Sakura (Eduard Tabishev) sees that he can be a harmless helper in his fight schemes if he'll keep silent and help lure in fall guys. Schizo proves to be more than that, a cocky kid with a certain panache, a sliding swagger of a walk, an ability to swill down vodka with grown men. But his independent spirit soon leads him away from his mom's boyfriend and out on his own.

The events that follow shouldn't be revealed, but they're both natural and surprising, and it's a deft adventure that leads toward wisdom and happiness.

The people are intensified because of their toughness and the desolate harsh beauty of the scenery. Zinka (Olga Landina), the girl Schizo adopts, is a cross between Mia Farrow and Sissy Spacek. Her exchanges with Schizo are priceless, largely because of his combination of naivete and boldness. The rough men around the fight scene aren't caricatures; they're just tough and vivid. One event follows hard upon another and there's an edge of danger and menace but also a growing sense that this Mustapha fellow is both an operator and a sweetie-pie. Such a combination might seem corny sometimes, but it works fine here. The writing is economical (imagine early Hemingway with a Kazhakistan accent), the direction and editing are spare and energetic. The narrative delivers its little surprises with raw poetry, like a good short story. This first film is a little gem.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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