"Was it dangerous to make a documentary about the Russian mob?" director Alexander Gentelev was asked after his Thieves by Law premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival (April 22 to May 2, 2010).
"We will find out after the protagonists see the movie," he deadpanned.
The heroes Gentelev was referring to are three retired godfathers of Russia’s underworld who muse about their colorful exploits on camera. As he explained, "A lot of criminal kingpins were willing to mouth off, but not on film." Finding insiders willing to help lift the "veil of secrecy" surrounding followers of the so-called "Thieves Code" took the Russian-born director two years. It was well worth the wait.
Leonid Bilunov is the smoothest of Thieves' unholy trinity. The Ukrainian native shows us around his Antibes and Paris homes, whose doors are twice as fortified as a bank's and whose art holdings would be the envy of any museum.
He fairly glows over his generous support for the Russian Orthodox Church in Cannes. No government official gives as much as thieves by law, he rhapsodizes. Omertà, which requires a bandit to share his wealth with the gang, dies hard. (Renunciation of family, employment and a steady address also figures in the original honor code.)
For his part, former card shark Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov compares a thief's function with that of a member of parliament: both "help people." A dedicated sports patron, the Uzbek-born topper of Interpol's Most Wanted List made 2002 headlines for allegedly fixing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Baby-faced Tokhtakhounov shows off his "I Made It in Life" slippers. Whether he or his fellow honchos can actually read, though, remains unclear.
Like Bulinov, he had moved his business headquarters to Israel until that country got wise to the wise guys exploiting its relatively lax policies. Tokhtakhounov departed after a half a year. Left to imagine how Israel's rough edge would offend his delicate sensibilities, we can't help but admire Gentelev's way with irony.
Our third crime boss, 40-ish Vitaly Dyomochka, is two decades younger than the other two. He unwittingly authors one of the funniest lines in the movie. Appalled to hear that convicts are not even eligible to run for mayor in the U.S., he tsks, "Damn! What kind of a place is that?" Yet his love affair with American-style crime flicks remains unmarred. He stars in his own productions, where real debtors get smacked down as a way of paying up.
While Gentelev's film is no action thriller, pacey editing and thumping music advance it at a breathless clip. The stylistic crackle revs our suspense. Add to this the rugged charm of these bold men – and their lushly captured lifestyles of the rich and infamous – and we find ourselves sympathizing with the very objects of our revulsion. Part of the documentary's appeal is that it traffics in a fantasy most wouldn't cop to having.
It also takes care to explain history. Using period footage, Gentelev traces the brotherhood's roots to Stalin's gulags of the '30s. We learn that, sequestered from totalitarian rule, a parallel gang society evolved with its own rules, ethics and hierarchy. Additionally we get a remedial reading course on those tattoos -- last seen in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises -- which mark a thug's rank, modus operandi and back story.
Another handy footnote is perestroika. Mikhail Gorbachev's late '80s restructuring gave rise to private fortunes, which organized crime horned in on. Through such business practices as assassination and extortion, syndicates would soon lord over legitimate and illegal ventures alike, including arms smuggling, money laundering and the oil trades. Six years of warfare, from 1994 to 2000, among the hundreds of gangs ruling Russia meant a redistribution of assets and new opportunities for those who survived.
Trumpeting their current credentials as respectable businessmen, our three lead characters provide the film a peculiar redemptive arc -- if by redemption is meant a lingering taste for predation.
Other heads that talk us through the story include a mob lawyer, an Interpol agent and an Israeli general. Gentelev's touch with the brain trust is assured. On occasion, though, he permits a too-literal illustration of their words, as with a cut to raw beef being boiled when Bilunov recalls the first time he cried, because he "couldn't shoot to kill."
Not to complain, but Thieves by Law (aka Ganavim ba Hok) may raise as many questions as it answers. For example, why did the three bosses agree to participate? Did the film serve as free advertising for them?
Gentelev speculated that Tokhtakhounov is "dreaming of going back to the West, where he's not allowed in -- he says he didn't do anything bad in the West." As for Dyomochka, he felt that the only one of the three who still observes the thief's code "really wanted to tell the story of his life." And Bilunov? In the film, he warns that he's the "lion … and wouldn't recommend that anyone take it away from me." What's that if not a message?
"I think Bilunov agreed just because he was bored," shrugged Gentelev.
Whatever their motives, the three retired bosses who reflect on their lives of crime offer insights raw and rare enough to make some viewers suspicious. "They're fakes," argues a distributor who prefers not to be named. Gentelev's response to Thieves' naysayers?
"Check with Interpol."