Dir: Aleksei Mizgiryov. Russ. 2007. 83mins.
Perhaps the Taormina festival catalogue errs a little on the side of enthusiasm in comparing Aleksei Mizgiryov's debut feature Kremen to Taxi Driver. But there is something in the claim: like Scorsese's classic, this is a tale of a disturbed, asocial innocent with a rigid moral code who takes on a corrupt metropolis and, in his own way, wins. Though over-stylised at times, Kremen sticks in the mind thanks to the edgy weirdness of the central character and the darkly resonant quality of the story, which feels like a contemporary take on a traditional Russian folk tale - complete with odd logical leaps and gaps in the flow of the narrative.

Made on a tight budget, Kremen occupies an uneasy niche somewhere between the action-avenger genre and the arthouse, and this may limit its box-office appeal at home, where it has just opened. Elsewhere it will benefit from being seen in a few other festivals after its two launchpads (the other was Sochi, the main Russian indie fest, where Kremen picked up a prize for Best Debut). Abroad, audiences who enjoy the mix of revenge themes and skewed social observation offered by Korean directors like Park Chan-wook may take to it.

Newly arrived in Moscow from the struggling oil town of Almetevsk, solemn young Anton (Antropov) heads for the house of an uncle long established in the big city, who seems a little bemused to see him. Fresh out of the army, Anton plays the cool hard guy, breaking bottles and walnuts on his head and telling anyone who will listen that 'my word is like flint' (The film's Russian title translates literally as 'flint'). But this tough act is belied by his appearance: gawky, crew-cut Anton looks more like a 16-year-old boy scout with delusions than a hardened Red Army recruit.

It's difficult to work out whether there's much going on beneath the surface of Anton's serious, deapan face; but Antropov's slightly stiff, unemotional performance suits the character well. Only in his unrequited passion for his pretty blonde cousin Zina (Bezborodova) does he show any signs of weakness; but his reaction to rejection is never (or only for a split-second) self-doubt. He simply clocks the setback and doggedly renews the assault.

We would feel sorry for Anton if he wasn't such a neo-Dostoyevskian psychopath - and the tension between these two impulses of sympathy and repulsion is maintained throughout. Even the music helps in this respect: the film's soundtrack consists mainly of an obsessively repeated string and woodwind piece by Philip Glass (commissioned for but cut from Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi) based on a series of wavering, queasy minor chords that mirror the audience's ambivalence towards the hero.

When Anton joins the Moscow police, his lack of humour and strict (though rather homemade) sense of justice seem sure to be stream-rollered by his easy-going corrupt colleagues, who run a prostitution racket, let off a murderer in return for a huge bribe and frame a penniless immigrant in his stead, and knock back the vodka like there's no tomorrow.

But he's so impervious to threats and blandishments that it's his fellow officers, led by likeable bad guy Sergeant Chakhlov (Kulichkov), who end up fazed by the implacable moral code of a man who exacts payback for every single injustice he suffers, or sees inflicted on others.

The script reveals Anton's credit-and-debit worldview gradually and laconically, giving just enough information at just the right time. Colours stay dark throughout, with yellow-lit night scenes suggesting the moral sickness Anton discovers in the city.

The stylised feel of the exercise - at its most extreme in the final shoot-out - is emphasised by halting editing, slowed down by fades to black. Mostly this works, though certain Pinter-style passages of dialogue are less easy to take.

Production companies/backers
Nasha Kino

International sales
InterCinema XXI Century

Sergei Selyanov

Yuri Klavdiyev
Aleksei Mizgiryov

Vadim Deyev

Production design
Denis Chibanov

Main cast
Yevgeni Antropov
Dmitri Kulichkov
Anastasiya Bezborodova
Sergei Shekhovstov
Tatyana Nastashevskaya
Aleksandr Golubyov