Thieves by Law (2010) dir. Alexander Gentelev
By Alan Bacchus
The mysterious Russian Mob is possibly more infamous and feared than the Italian Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. We were first enlightened to some of the traditions of this most nefarious organization in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Now, Russian-Israeli filmmaker Alexander Gentelev offers us some intimate firsthand accounts of these "Thieves By Law," an enlightening and entertainment doc with equal parts shock value and ironic humour.
Gentelev first gives us an adequate summary of the birth of the Russian mob in the Stalinist gulags of the '30s, from which a culture of crime with its own detailed codes of conduct and traditions evolved. We learn about the world within the prison, the brutality and attrition of its prisoners, which became the training ground for the country's criminal organizations. Of course, as we know from Eastern Promises, mob hierarchy is expressed in the tattoos on the prisoners, a form of identification or badges of honour. These characters were scary in Cronenberg's movie and the real guys don't disappoint.
It wasn't until the fall of the Communism that these gangsters flourished, exploiting the fledgling free market capitalism to expand their wealth and influence throughout the country. By the end of the' 90s, the Thieves by Law (the equivalent term to La Cosa Nostra) seemed to be in everyone's pocket and by the end of this millennium, escalated their targets from small businesses to the nation's most influential politicians.
The men Gentelev interviews to bring forth this information are a group of surprisingly frank, yet approachable, Tony Montanas, semi-retirees from the racket who have settled down in far-flung locales such as Paris and Israel, but each with a wealth of hard-line horror stories and tall tales of extortion, torture and murder. The most jaw dropping is the account of one of the men who frequently brought homeless people dressed up as businessmen to his meetings, whom he would decapitate if necessary to prove his commitment to his threats.
The deadpan honesty and even likeability of these folks in contrast to their grisly stories make for an oddly ironic and unintentionally humorous tone. That, combined with the low rent visuals and likely unintentional Borat-like music, adds even more working class Russian flavour to this quirky film.