“Show me one person in Russia who doesn’t have a criminal record,” a subject rhetorically challenges in Alexander Gentelev’s Thieves by Law, a smart and fascinating peek inside the Russian mafia via three middle-aged “businessmen” old and wise enough to have both survived, and to be able to explain without bombast, the inner workings of the post-Perestroika underworld. And in a country that allows convicted criminals to run for government office, the guy’s got a point. Like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, which would make a great narrative companion piece to this doc, Thieves by Law forgoes broad sensationalism for the riveting details of the matter-of-fact mafioso life.
From an opening sequence that quickly grounds the Russian mafia as an international issue (through news reports from around the world about its operations in various countries), to its catchy Russian tunes and swift editing, the movie moves as deftly as its globe-trotting subjects.
Though Gentelev’s prison footage, like the historical narration that fills in gaps for Western audiences, is a bit dry and bookish, this is fortunately kept to a minimum, as his talking heads know from whence they speak. Thieves by Law is one of those rare cases in which the interviewer intuits exactly which questions to ask (even the most obvious one that too many filmmakers are terrified to broach: “Why are you doing my movie?”) so that simply leaving the camera rolling on the characters is enough. Especially when you’ve got access to such diverse, engaging personalities.
Gentelev has cast his net wide. There’s the creepy mobster who resembles John Malkovich and who says that honor requires that he “must respond to words with deeds” while he coldly reminisces about a particular murder as he cues up at a pool table. His opposite is a big Uzbek teddy bear-type that wears embroidered slippers reading that he’s “made it in life.” Then there’s the seen-it-all Interpol agent and the mafia lawyer who helped 12 honchos escape jail time—only to have all 12 later killed on the outside. Perhaps most intriguing is Russia’s first millionaire, an oligarch who immediately went into business with the Chechens when he hit it big (since the “thieves by law”—the term used for Russian mafiosos—are scared of Chechens). Together they paint a picture of the Russian mafia not as the “other,” but as something embedded deep within Russian society, part of the very fabric of life.
As communism collapsed banking became the most dangerous job in the ’90s because those first banks were criminal enterprises (and the police extorted banks). The criminals who “milked” the oligarchs became the “protégés,” explains one guy with a nearly two-decade prison record. And as the criminals grew older their organizations inevitably matured too. Racketeers began investing in new businesses and became legit. The Russian mafia is not so much organized crime now as it is legitimized crime. (One subject even calls the word Mafia an “artificial” term.) “I’m a law-abiding Russian citizen,” the loveable mobster emphasizes in frustration. And according to post-Soviet logic, it’s absolutely true.
Once this Russian mindset becomes clear, everything else falls into place. Indeed, Gentelev’s subjects seem nearly weary that they have to explain such mundane things as the organization’s “mutual aid funds” or its answer to parliament, the “Conference of Thieves.” After all, those gruesome gang wars that occurred in the ’90s were really just a civil war. The crime bosses fled to Israel only because the passports were easy to get and there were no money-laundering laws on the books. They were Eastern opportunists simply looking to take advantage of Western laissez-faire attitudes. No different from the Malkovich lookalike funding his violent indie movie himself since his organization has “no appreciation of the world of art”—or using guys who owe him money as the extras that get knocked around. Which is also no different from the Russian bishop in France citing Gospel to justify his taking over half a million from the oligarch for his Cannes church. In a world ridden with hypocrisy, Gentelev’s film refreshingly exposes the respect-worthy honesty of Russia’s state-sanctioned thieves.
Thieves by Law will play on April 22, 24, 26, and 28 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.