Eastern Promises (2007)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 9; L- ; S/N -5. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it; do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on.
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;
they are robbed of sleep unless they have made
someone stumble.
For they eat the bread of wickedness
and drink the wine of violence.
Proverbs 4:14-17

Nikolai admires Anna s motorcycle, and its owner.
(c) 2007 Focus Features

Although the gut-wrenching opening scene graphically depicting a throat slashing might cause the faint-hearted to leave the theater, those who stay will be rewarded by a film that moves far beyond the usual crime genre tale. The murder is quickly followed by a desperate young woman, her abdomen dripping with blood, collapsing at a pharmacist’s counter. She is rushed to the hospital, where despite the heroic measures of the staff, she dies in childbirth. One of the nurses looks at her purse and takes out what turns out to be a bound diary. The attending nurse is Anna (Naomi Watts), curious about what was obviously a teenager, one who kept a diary written in Russian. She takes the book home, where she shows it to her Russian born mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) and Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), thus setting in motion a series of events that will change all of their lives, as well as those whom she is yet to meet.

Finding a card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant in the diary, Anna first meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), driver and body guard for Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Nikolai is attracted both to the Ural motorcycle and to its rider. Unknown to Anna, as she draws up before the restaurant entrance on her Russian motorcycle, Nikolai is also an assassin, and Kiril is the son of restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a prominent member of the Russian counterpart to the Mafia, the Vory V Zakone crime family. Inside, she enquires of Semyon about the dead girl. He feigns ignorance, but when she reveals that she has the dead girl’s diary, he manages to conceal his concern by offering to translate the book. Even when she further reveals that her uncle is working on a translation, he offers, almost insists, on seeing the book. When she returns, he is disappointed to discover that she has brought not the original, but a copy of the tale-telling work.

Anna, a second-generation Russian immigrant, is interested in the diary now because she is concerned foremost for the dead mother’s baby, a healthy daughter, to whom she gives the name Christina because it is the Christmas season. She wants the child to know whatever the mother will reveal about herself and her family back in Russia. She soon learns that there is more than meets the eye regarding the mother’s relationship to Semyon. How her life and fate becomes intertwined with that of the brutal Nikolai makes for fascinating, even better, captivating, viewing.

Beginning with that opening scene, the film has several violent sequences, so let the reader be warned—from the one in which Nicolai thaws out a gang victim and extracts its teeth and cuts off its fingers to make identification impossible, to a tour de force fight in a public steam bath where a naked Nicolai has been set up for assassination by two killers. Not an easy film to watch, but Viggo Mortensen’s character is so mysterious and ambiguous that he holds our attention as we wonder about his past and future. The actor has plenty of competition, too, in Vincent Cassel’s Kirill, a weak, psychotic killer who longs for the respect that his powerful father conveys to Nicolai. (This might remind you of the three main characters in The Road to Perdition.) Despite its violence and darkness, the film is a Christmas tale, one that will leave you no doubt as to who is Herod, and might surprise you as to the possible identity of the Christ figure. If you liked Viggo Mortensen in director David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (and of course in the Lord of the Rings series), you will be even more impressed by him in the film master’s latest work.

For Reflection/Discussion

Contains what could be spoilers, so beware of reading on.

1) Did you find the depiction of violence unsettling? Gratuitous, or used for its shock value to show what kind of people Anna was dealing with?

2) What do you think of the claim that it is a “Christmas film” ? Not one you can show to the average church class, is it? Besides the birth of a child and the story’s setting during the Christmas season, what other Christmas elements does it contain? How can it be seen as a Birth story from the standpoint of the Innocents murdered by Herod’s troops? Only this time, how is “Herod” thwarted? Were you surprised by this turn of events?

3) How is Semyon a good stand-in for Herod? How does he “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” ?

4) Who is the Christ or savior-figure in the film? Surprised at this? What does the film suggest about light and grace in the midst of the darkest, most unlikely of places?