Signs of decrepitude. Valery Panyushkin on the new “Naval Cadets” and other Russian anachronisms

10 November 2023

By Valery Panyushkin

Source: Spektr.Press

Can you imagine an action film in which the dashing swordsmen who are the main heroes are well past 60 while the lead villain, also a dashing swordsman, is a good bit over 70? Nevertheless, such a film does exist and it’s the latest sequel to Navy Cadets [‘Gardemariny‘], who once upon a time were fresh young things and, while none too bright, were full of youthful passion..

The same director, the same actors… An entire lifetime under the bridge but their sense of self hasn’t changed and they haven’t noticed the passage of time. It’s funny and awkward. 

Besides the mass of on-screen oddities and simply shoddy work, already derided by all the world’s cinema critics and by simply attentive viewers, it is this glaring anachronism that is striking in the new Naval Cadets — sword-wielding people in their seventies do not go chasing after people in their sixties. They’re simply not physically capable of it. They prefer political intrigues, hired killers or poison.

And no, don’t accuse me of ageism. We know a mass of great actors who played great roles in their later years. Take just Anatoly Papanov, who in The Cold Winter of 1953 played the last and surely the best of his roles. Or the great roles as older men of Rostislav Platt, Zinovy Gerdt, John Malkovich, Robert De Niro — sorrowful, luminous, wise performances. (Oh, what the new Naval Cadets might have been if the heroes had experienced the senescence of their youthful ideals!)

And even in action films — 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plays the hero in Gran Torino but that hero doesn’t turn his enemies to mincemeat, a gun in each hand. Rather he sacrifices himself and defeats evil, some twenty or so bullets in his chest and without firing a single shot himself. Such is the heroism of the elderly: self-sacrifice for children and grandchildren, not sending those children and grandchildren to their deaths for the sake of maintaining the illusion of their own power if not merely their vitality.

I dare to suggest that this anachronism, this failure to understand how old you are and just how age-inappropriate your actions are, grips actors who are sensitive to the world around them when the surrounding culture itself becomes anachronistic. When the country around them ages, becomes decrepit and falls into decay.

We have already seen something similar in the later Soviet Union during the so-called Stagnation period. We saw how the fine actor and notable director Sergei Bondarchuk brought out the film War and Peace in 1967. Unlike the feeble new Naval Cadets, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a really significant work in terms of acting, script-writing and directing, but Bondarchuk who plays Pierre Bezukhov was 47, whereas Pierre is 18 at the start of Tolstoy’s novel and 26 at the end. 

An eighteen-year-old may struggle in vain with the overwhelming desire to visit ladies of easy virtue while this isn’t something a man nearing 50 particularly wants. A twenty-year-old may go out armed with a pistol in the hope of accidentally encountering and killing Napoleon whereas such thoughts no longer occur to a man approaching 50. This does not mean that a mature man or an old one has no thoughts or feelings. They do but not ones that make them go chasing after one another with swords. 

It’s surprising but in a decrepit society under a decrepit state, older people can’t sense this. They have no sense of time. They do not understand or accept their place which might have been a highly honourable one. They cannot imagine young people as those who will live after them. They see young people as those whose duty is to die for them – the old.

Translated by Melanie Moore

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