Bespredel (1989, USSR)
‘Bespredel’ in Russian would seem to mean ‘lawlessness’… but also ‘limitless’ or ‘anything goes’. “What is [bespredel]?” the prison’s top bespredelshchik and string-puller, The Prince, is asked. “[Bespredel] is a trap,” he replies. I hope that helps.
The asker, Yuri Kolgarov, known as ‘Kalgan’ (Andrei Tashkov) has been sent down for four years. For what? I’m not sure; the subtitles suggest that it is for the beautifully opaque ‘arson of the Caspian Sea’ – which could be anything.
Kalgan is a proud man who objects to having to work, principally, it seems, because he regards sewing padded jackets as ‘women’s work’. He is soon introduced to a small group of elite prisoners – a gang of six ‘thieves in law’ – who don’t do any work, but are credited by the authorities with achieving 120% of their quota while the vast majority of others slave away. The thieves in law have a significant investment in protecting their comfortable life and beat him up for rocking the boat. But he finds an ally in the scrawny, bookish Viktor Moshkin (Anton Androsov), known as ‘Philatelist’ because he committed a dangerous philately speculation offence, for which he got a year’s imprisonment. Philatelist regales his fellow prisoners with stories of the Mamluk realm to inspire them to throw off their slave status.
After a meeting with ‘The Prince’ (Mikhail Zhigalov) in the punishment cells, Kalgan is installed as a foreman to encourage his acquiescence, and is rewarded with an unsupervised visit with his girlfriend Lena, whom he rapes. Philatelist continues to urge his fellow workers to revolt, “It is better to die than wear the brand of a slave.” Kalgan demurs; he has discovered that he is to become a father as a result of that brief, ugly prison encounter with Lena, and contends that he needs to be mindful of his new parental responsibilities.
But die rather than wear the brand of a slave Philatelist does. The Prince directs that the young man be ‘humiliated’ for his subversive activities and Mogul (Sergei Garmash)-led gang of six rapes him behind a barricaded door. By the time the other prisoners are able to break into the room to save him they find him hanging. This sparks a massive mutiny. Piston (Nail Idrisov), a gold-toothed member of the thieves at law, seeks to take on Kalgan and his cronies, armed with a knife, but is overpowered and is himself stabbed. The prison burns, riot police open fire on the revolting prisoners, the gang of six gets its comeuppance… and order is ultimately and inevitably restored.
At least, that’s what I think happens. The subtitles on the YouTube version I watched are dodgy at best… and then cut out completely for the final 27 minutes.
But even if the details are a little murky at times, there is something wonderfully gritty but unfathomable about this glimpse into a Soviet prison: prisoners pitched violently against prisoners – not over drugs or gang turf or race – but in support of or opposition to forced labour, and the preservation of or revolt against a way of prison life. The characters are strong and the acting excellent; what more could you want (other than subtitles that don’t splutter and then fizzle out completely, and a few more guards to make it look as though the prison isn’t entirely run by the prisoners)? But splendid, anyway.
Posted on November 6th, 2017 at 9:13 pm. Updated on August 28th, 2019 at 7:57 pm.
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