Kidnapping Caucasian Style – 1964
Kidnapping, Caucasian Style is a burlesque comedy by famed Soviet director Leonid Gaidai. Beautiful Nina is kidnapped and being forced into mariage. The ensuing face-off between the reckless woman, her naive savior and the gullible captors result in many a comic situation.
A 2001 documentary ‘Leonid Gaidai, from Comedy to Greatness’, mentions Charlie Chaplin as the director’s lifelong inspiration. His own work is equally slapstick with very literal characters who reappear from one film to another.
Here, Soviet audiences are reunited with a familiar ‘Trio of villains’ — Trus (Coward), Balbes (Fool), and Bivaliy (Seasoned old dog) whom Film Critic and Editor at Seance magazine, Andrey Kartashov, describes as ‘cartoonish’.
However behind the clownish elements is another detail worth noting: the setting. From the title it is made clear where the story takes place. Moreover, the practice of bride kidnaping is generally associated with central Asian and Caucasian cultures.
The director takes his audience on a journey to the sunny parts of the country but also to the past. The savior, Shurik, is on vacation in the South and his journey is the perfect occasion to learn about Caucasian ‘folklore [and] local legends’. For the public, it is a reminder of the country’s geographical largess and multiculturalism. At the same time, these cultural specificities are portrayed as divisive and outdated.
‘Soyuz nerushimy respublik svobodnikh’ (Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics) is the first line of the Soviet anthem and according to Kartashov, the film emulates a similar ideal of a ‘Brotherhood of Nations’. It appears that the only way to combat barbaric traditions is to unite the ‘freeborn republics’ under the flag of the Socialist ideology.
In the film, Soviet values are represented by the young heroes. Shurik, a model student, is aware of the country’s vast cultural heritage. His initial motivation for the voyage is to record and preserve the knowledge of old customs. However the interest in old traditions does not overrule his principles when it comes to rescuing Nina from an unwanted marriage.
Nina, on her part, serves as the poster girl for Soviet youth. A famous line in the movie describes her as ‘a student, a member of the Komsomol, an athlete, and last but not least, a great beauty’. In other words, she is a Comrade first and a woman or wife second. In fact, the character’s boldness balances the naiveté of her heroic savior, Shurik, and even challenges his position.
The opposition between traditional past and Soviet modernity is further exemplified in the final sequences. Once free, Nina seeks vengeance against the mastermind of her kidnapping, Comrade Saakhov. In a dramatic moment, she declares that a crime can only ‘be washed away…with blood’ as per ancestral custom. The comedy spins into a parody of the horror genre when the young heroes, masked and armed with rifles, appear in Saakhov’s living room at night.
Frightened, he appeals to their good judgment — ‘You and I are modern people. These are medieval barbaric laws’ he pleads demanding instead to be judged by the Soviet Court. Unmoved, Shurik shoots Saakhov in the back before revealing that the rifle was only loaded with salt.
The scene makes a mockery of Caucasian customs through a reversal of situations. Once the villain becomes the target of traditional justice, he admits to its barbarism. It then comes as no surprise that the penultimate scene finds the villains facing trial. Such a conclusion complied with censors’ demands for patriotic and moralistic content, namely that the answer to traditional obscurantism be the reason and order of the Soviet Court.
However Film Historian Alexander Pozdniakov is cautious not to take in comedy literally. ‘It’s satire’ he reminds us and therefore one cannot be categoric on Gaidai’s intentions. His characters after all were caricatures, as may be Trus’s patriotism in his final line — ‘All hail our [Soviet] Court, the most merciful Court in the world!’
- They Met in Moscow, Svinarka i postukh (literally, the Swineherd and the Shepherd), 1941, Ivan Pyryev
- The Diamond Arm, Brilliantovaya ruka, 1969, Leonid Gaidai
- Mimino, Georgiy Daneliya, 1977