Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tribeca: "Thieves by Law"

"If God gave me the chances to live my life again,” confesses a gangster at the beginning of Alexander Gentelev’s Thieves by Law, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” As the film unfolds, it’s not exactly a surprising confession; the film profiles three high rollers in the Russian Mafia, and they do a lot of things in their interviews—tell secrets, show off, point fingers, explain motivations. But there’s no apologizing. It’s not their style.

The three Russian Mob men are older now, wiser perhaps, enjoying the fruits of their labor. They live behind armored doors and reinforced windows, wearing designer clothes, surrounded by priceless works of art. But you can’t buy civility; Gentelev’s camera revels in the incongruity of the handsome, tanned, silver-haired man, impeccably dressed for his immaculately prepared seaside breakfast, calmly telling vile stories of cold-blooded violence, like the time he nearly burned that guy to death in prison. One of his fellow mobsters has a scene where he matter-of-factly discusses the virtues of dumping bodies in the sea, rather than burying them. When proud men (particularly criminals) tell stories, there’s always the potential for exaggeration. But you pretty much take these guys’ word for it. There’s a calmness to their criminality that you just can’t fake.

Their criminal careers begin in prison, where they learn the ropes; from there, they become a part of the “thieves by law” caste, the kings of the underworld, their place in that world identified by their signature tattoos, each one telling a story. Counterpoint to their tales is provided by the cops they dodged and the businessmen they “milked”. The film is also thankfully heavy on historical context—the economic conditions that birthed the Russian Mob, and in which it thrived (by the time of the gang wars in the 1990s, there were 600 gangs in Moscow alone).

The openness of the inside men, and the film’s full-on access to them, is Thieves by Law’s greatest virtue; they’re memorable characters with a fascinating story to tell. Thanks to their insights, we’re able to better understand the logistics of organized crime—the nuts and bolts of how it works, how they worked their way up, and how it is being carried on by their underlings and successors. Meanwhile, the gangsters have gone legit, as politicians and businessmen, though, as one Interpol agent notes, “people don’t abandon the underworld.” One has become a film producer; he proudly shows off his first film, and notes that he let some people pay off debts to him by appearing in the film. “The beatings are real,” he explains.

The film’s primary flaw is that it plays more like an overlong TV special than a feature documentary. The graphics and montage of the title sequence have the feel of a History Channel special; the overwritten narration would certainly be at home there. (We also can’t help but notice occasional typos in the graphics and subtitles.) Once the history has been filled in, the picture loses its thrust in its second half. It becomes less a profile or exposé and more a series of anecdotes—some colorful, some drab, like the ramblings of a party guest who’s stayed too long.

Thieves by Law mostly just skims the surface; we know all about what these guys have, and what they’ve done, but very little about who they are and what makes them tick. Still, it has its moments. Late in the film, one of the men explains that after the bloody 1990s, mob violence decreased because so many of them went legit—but also because there was no one left to kill. “It’s horrible,” he says. “Of course it’s horrible.” But he’s chuckling, and there’s a gleam in his eye. Chilling.

"Thieves by Law" is playing April 22, 24, 26, and 28 as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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