Classic novelist Gogol turns detective in new Russian movie

Novelist Nikolai Gogol battles supernatural forces to solve a series of ritual murders in Gogol - The Start, which opened in Russian cinemas on Aug 31.
Novelist Nikolai Gogol battles supernatural forces to solve a series of ritual murders in Gogol - The Start, which opened in Russian cinemas on Aug 31.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • There is a fresh twist in the plot. A new Russian film aimed at a youth audience reinvents classic novelist Nikolai Gogol as a Gothic-style detective who battles dark supernatural forces to solve a series of ritual murders.

Critics have queried the lashings of eyeliner, plumped-up lips and lack of historical rigour, while the makers have said the film will breathe new life into the 19th-century writer's works for today's students. Mist swirls, black horses gallop through dark forests and naked witches leap over bonfires in the first film in a planned series of four, called Gogol - The Start, which opened in cinemas on Aug 31. It will also be shown in an eight-episode television version.

The film is based partly on the author's life, with references to his epileptic fits and a brief job as a clerk for the tsarist political police - as well as his fear of being buried alive. In the film, Gogol works alongside a famed tsarist investigator who is sent to rural Ukraine to probe a series of murders of young women. The plot references the author's works, especially the spooky tales of peasant life collected in Evenings On A Farm Near Dikanka.

Gogol - whose most famous work was the novel Dead Souls, published in 1842 - grew up in today's Ukraine and was inspired by its folk traditions.

"We made up the possible circumstances in which Gogol wrote Evenings On A Farm Near Dikanka," said producer Alexander Tsekalo.

"We linked up all the scary incidents into a sequence and gave them a single perpetrator - a serial killer, you could say," he added.

"Gogol, as he awaits a new investigator, is forced to investigate these crimes himself. All the rest is Gogol, and even the fact that he worked as a scribe in the Third Department (political police) and came to Dykanka in this job - all that happened in real life."

Gogol's works are compulsory reading in Russian schools.

One of the film's plotters, Ms Natalya Merkulova, said the movie is "a giant step forward" in giving Gogol a "new life".

He and other classic writers "hang in classrooms in big, dusty portraits - and everyone is sick to the back teeth of them", she noted.

The film is being released in two versions, one with a 16+ certificate and another more graphic one with an 18+ age limit.

Played in the film by 28-year-old actor Alexander Petrov, Gogol is pale and brooding with darkrimmed eyes. He periodically falls into epileptic fits, waking up with the latest clue to the murders.

He also enjoys lusty encounters with beautiful young women.

Not everyone is pleased by the turn of events. "I don't think they brought silicone to Dykanka in Gogol's day. I also don't think Gogol wore eye make-up," complained a reviewer on the Vokrug TV entertainment website.

Interfax news agency slammed the dialogue as lacking in historic accuracy, saying the characters "talk like salespeople in a mobile phone store".

But the makers emphasised that the film is not meant to be taken too seriously. Director Yegor Baranov told Momenty, a regional entertainment site: "The slight trashiness is intentional."

Although the film's playing fast and loose with the classics outraged some, critics generally said it works on its own terms.

"As a horror B-movie, it's not bad," wrote the Rossiiskaya Gazeta government newspaper.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Classic novelist Gogol turns detective in new Russian movie'. Subscribe