Writers: Aleksey Kozlov and Petr Smirnov
Director: Aleksey Kozlov
Stalking every shot like a cross between George Smiley and Sam Spade, Professor Boris Letush is torn between self-preservation and his growing guilt in Aleksey Kozlov and Petr Smirnov’s film The Conscience set in 1920s Petrograd, showing as part of the Russian Film Festival on the BFI Player. Kozlov as director borrows the style of film noir for his morality tale, reflecting on the cost of collaboration and the corruption of State officers.
Seeking his brother’s killer, Boris is drawn into a c complex case when sent to question a dubious criminal who promises to help Boris if he facilitates an escape from prison. But he is an informant that the authorities wanted to have shot during capture to avoid any embarrassing revelations in court, so when he disappears, Boris comes under suspicion, deciding that he can no longer work for the regime.
Kozlov and Smirnov’s plot is a little confusing so it can be difficult to unpick the various connections and double-crosses that frame the story as Boris’ own sense of justice is tested. His scrupulous morality (signified by the cross he wears) and belief in law – a subject he teaches at the local university – becomes slowly compromised and, as any good man in film noir discovers, sometimes you have to do wrong to do right, or at the very least get them before they get you
As his moral compass becomes more wayward, his commitments to other people increase and the writers introduce a mute niece in an orphanage and a flighty lover for Boris to fight for in the hope that he can extricate himself and live a normal family life. Neither storyline is especially convincing on its own, but they fill out some of Boris’ character, making him more than a shady spy or a university tutor seriously out of his depth.
While trying to unravel the who is betraying who narrative, it gets a little bogged down in itself but the consistency of the filming style and the atmospheric creation of danger is vividly achieved with lurking shadows and plenty of paranoia. Moving through the film, Boris captures a hint of a beleaguered Robert Mitcham or even in the movie’s earliest scenes an aloof Humphrey Bogart, btu Boris becomes more human and more fallible than his anti-hero counterparts which may not be quite so stylish but in the intense circumstances of post-revolutionary Russia, feels more appropriate.
The Conscience is an ambitious film and in rich black and white it looks sumptuous on screen, revelling in its period detail and the contrast between the military worlds and the ordinary poverty of citizens living in one-room apartments. It overcomplicates its plot but true to noir form, only those with a clear conscience can triumph.
The Conscience is screening as part of the Russian Film Festival on BFI Player from 12 November-10 December.