Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Merry CrimesMas: S.A. Cosby on Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises or How Baby Jesus took down the Russian Mob

The Russian mafia or mob or brotherhood of thieves have, over the past few years, supplanted the Italian Mafia as the go-to villains du jour in most crime moves and novels. That a lot of these representations veer wildly from uncomfortable stereotypes to down right offensive parody is an issue that I have struggled with myself as a writer, a reader and a film goer. However, there are a few films that delve into the world of the Bratva with depth and nuance and a sense of the nihilism and the complex codes and traditions that make the gangster movie so watchable regardless of the nationality of the gangsters themselves.

One of these films is David Cronenberg’s 2007 gangland epic Eastern Promises. Staring Viggo Mortensen this film is set in England during Christmas and tells the story of Anna, a Russian-British midwife. As the film opens Anna is trying to help an underage prostitute bring her baby into the world. The girl dies during labor and Anna finds her diary. That’s bad news for Anna because the girl was a part of a human trafficking network under the control of a powerful Russian syndicate in London headed by Seymon and his son Kirril and Seymon’s right hand man Nikolai.

Eastern Promises is remembered for many things. It’s meticulous attention to detail and authenticity. The screenwriter Steven Knight and the lead Viggo Mortensen did extensive research into the Russian underworld including the hieroglyphic nature of Russian gangland tattoos. It also has one of the great fight scenes in film history as a naked Nikolai fights for his life in a steam room against two Chechen hitmen armed with some of the sharpest knives in the history of edged weapons.

But what a lot of people seem to forget is that Eastern Promises is a Christmas move. And not just because it’s set during the holidays. The screenplay itself can be deconstructed as a dark retelling of the original Christmas story. Anna and Nikolai are stand-ins for Mary and Joseph. They care for a baby that is not their child at great personal risk to themselves. A case can be made that Seymon and his desire to kill the child (I don’t want to give spoilers but trust me he wants this baby dead in the worst way) can be seen as a metaphorical correlation with Herod. The baby may not bring salvation to whole world but it will irrevocably change the lives of everyone in the Russian syndicate in merry olde England.

I don’t know if Cronenberg set out to make his film a dark allegory of the First Christmas but all the seeds are there if you choose to look. The tradition of gift giving is also viewed through a skewered prism throughout the film. Tribute and fealty are given with unexpected consequences.

The philosophy of gift giving is in part a process of surrender. You give a gift with no thought to what you may receive in return. This is most closely identified with Christmas. In Eastern Promises that philosophy is perverted and twisted. Everything that is given including loyalty is done so with the express desire of receiving something in return. Only Anna, the innocent midwife, gives her time in a true altruistic manner.

If Christmas is about selflessness and the First Christmas is about freeing man of his sins  then Eastern Promises is the dark funhouse mirror of that sentiment. A film where family, charity and love are turned to ashes in the mouths of its characters and only through violence and blood are we given a chance at redemption.

Happy Holidays!

S.A. Cosby is the Anthony award winning author of My Darkest Prayer and the upcoming Blacktop Wasteland. You should buy that shit and follow him on Twitter @BlackLionKing73.

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