Bolshoi Babylon, spoiler alert:
The men are the sinners, and the end is not nigh
There’s a scene in the new film “Bolshoi Babylon,” in which …
Wait. I won’t.
Not because there can be any spoilers about this expertly made documentary currently making the rounds in theaters. For anyone who knows the particulars of the infamous midnight acid attack on Sergei Filin and its dreadful repercussions upon Russia’s premiere ballet company, this portrait of a post-traumatic season at the Bolshoi Theatre reveals no new information. Its makers, investigative journalists, have uncovered no new evidence about the sensational crime nor questioned the testimonies of a complicated cast of characters. There are no bombshell confessions, no sensational theories and no forays back to the dark days of recrimination that followed the blinding of Sergei Filin with sulphuric acid on a cold night in January 2013. The filmmakers have wisely let sinister dogs lie.
No — “Bolshoi Babylon” offers something far more rewarding than scandal-redux: it makes us flies on the walls of the aftermath. And the aftermath looks like business as usual.
In what has been universally noted as the film’s greatest achievement, “Bolshoi Babylon” uses nine months of unprecedented access to the Bolshoi Ballet’s rehearsal studios, dressing rooms, and roster of dancers to deliver insight in its most literal definition. I refer, yes, to gorgeous low-light backstage footage of sweaty swans and gritty rosin boxes; but such behind-the-scenes imagery is not unique. More remarkable are the candid scenes in which the long-suffering company and embattled management stake their claims on uncertain ground. It is in these moments — the return of the controversial director, Sergei Filin, in a martyr’s get-up of black glasses and scar tissue; the arrival of Vladimir Urin, the awkwardly blunt new boss bearing his own baggage; and the inevitable clash of personal animosities between the two — that the film’s achievement is won.
Last Sunday, from the safety of a London cinema, I squirmed with the same mix of excitement and discomfort that filmmakers Nick Read and Mark Franchetti must have felt on entering the closed chambers of the Trustee room for the initial confrontation between Filin and Urin. “Are they really going to let us watch this?” Spoiler alert: Yes they did.
As a novelist who has made the Bolshoi Ballet a central character in a series of historical fiction thrillers for teens, I followed the 2013 acid attack story closely for the better part of two years.
I tried and failed to make sense of a crime that had contributed to the downfall not just of the much-maligned ballet director Filin and his convicted attacker, former soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko, but also of an irresistible supporting cast that included the flamboyant and Machiavellian Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the small-town gymnast turned spurned swan, Anastasia Vorontsova, and the once invincible Anatoly Iksanov, who had weathered a massive reconstruction and embezzlement investigation during his tenure but was finally undone by the affair du Filin.
On the day my first book, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, was released I flew to Moscow. Though the Bolshoi Theatre was closed for the season and the court case against Dmitrichenko had been postponed for a month, I considered my visit a “research trip.” Two of the individuals I contacted that week feature prominently in “Bolshoi Babylon,” and it is somehow comforting to find their views unchanged.
Asked in a Q & A after the film’s premiere if he thought “the right man went to prison,” director Nick Read said he did. I thought of the letter I received from Dmitrichenko after his conviction. In it he advised me (as he had other journalists and fans who had supported him) to “look to those who benefited” from the attack to determine the real guilty party.
For a long time I blamed myself for not digging deeper, for accepting as permanent the gag order that had settled across the company. To hear it confirmed, albeit silently, by the filmmakers who spent nine months loosening that gag, that no one had benefited and that there was nothing more to be revealed, was something akin to closure.
My second novel was a follow-up, featuring balletic vendettas on tour. It hit the shelves in the summer of 2014, just as the Bolshoi engaged Lincoln Center for the first time in a decade.
I spent the week divining dress rehearsals and stalking (harmlessly) the dark-shaded Filin, whom I was inclined to believe was blackguard but who nonetheless impressed me as intelligent, articulate, and sharp-witted in his adversity. I caught a single glimpse of the scowling new executive director Vladimir Urin, at that time heralded as the floundering theater’s knight in shining armor.
“Bolshoi Babylon,” chronologically, ends on the eve of that US tour, with an office-door glimpse of Urin in his office, putting affairs in order. Though it was his laudable decision to allow the film to be made, the new boss of the Bolshoi fares poorly in front of the camera. He barks; he blusters; he shows an utter lack of humor — especially in the few instances in which he laughs mirthlessly and the editors allow it to continue a beat into discomfort. Though he is not, yet, Urin makes the better bad guy.
The film glosses over the most rank accusations about Sergei Filin’s supposed abuses of power (corruption, prostitution, nepotism, bullying, artistic disengagement) and dismisses, generally, the ongoing conspiracy theories that would have the convicted Dmitrichenko as a fall-guy in a byzantine conspiracy orchestrated, perhaps, by Tsiskaridze, or by Filin himself, or by (why not?) forces in the Kremlin.
Instead it reveals the slow-moving second attack on Filin, who braves a difficult re-entry after recuperation into the company that divided ranks over his character. His public humiliation is quite deliberately orchestrated by the stone-faced Urin. And it is breathtaking to watch.
Much has been written of the interview in “Bolshoi Babylon” in which Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev calls the Bolshoi “Russia’s secret weapon,” (a boast, incidentally that the 21st century brandmaker stole from the solidly non-brandable Nikita Khrushchev.) Medvedev goes on to compare the Bolshoi to that other Russian game-changer, the Kalashnikov.
The subtler assertion, found in the film’s title, is that the world-famous company is a great harlot — that whore “dressed in purple and scarlet … glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls … a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.”
In “Bolshoi Babylon,” ruination and sin are nearly entirely a male sport. The film’s coup is no single sound bite; it is the terrible display of a man, blinded and bayed, laid low before his tribe. The scene is appalling, the theatrical equivalent of a public stoning. Spoiler alert: Sergei Filin rues the day he became the director of the Bolshoi Ballet.