“The Mark of Cain” is a sensational documentary, exploring Russia’s turbulent history as seen through the eyes – and elaborately tattooed torsos – of the transformed country’s murderers, robbers, and substance abusers. As they rot in a half-dozen of the ex-Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s eroding penitentiaries, bloated from hunger and urinating blood, these forgotten dregs of society channel their identities and humanity by injecting ink beneath their weathered skins. It’s literally the only means of artistic expression these abandoned prisoners have left.
After winning the trust of these outcasts, the movie’s female director Alix Lambert persuades them to show off some of the most elaborate body art ever seen. Vikings, elaborate Russian buildings, Jesus, and winged cherubs are but some of the skin paintings that she is privy to. In one prison, the talent in charge of such detailed drawings is Aleksandr, convicted of murder and deemed the facility’s tattoo expert. It’s a pastime that’s not officially allowed by the prison guards who roam the center in black uniforms and flat, oval hats. However, judging from the many bodies that boast his work, Aleksandr is a busy man, indeed.
Demonstrating his handiwork with a tattooing needle fabricated from an electric shaver, a guitar string, and a ball point pen, the artist states that “this machine is my ticket to life here.” Prisoners tell him what they want, and he gives them a price. “As long as they pay,” confirms Aleksandr, “it makes no difference what they want me to do.”
Slava, in for murder, describes how tattoos can provide clues as to the number of years their wearers have been sentenced for. One can also learn about an inmate’s rank in the elaborate caste system honored in Russian jails. If one’s “tats” indicate that he’s a “Thief In Law,” a classification reserved for the top of the prison hierarchy, an onlooker can assume that he’s a man of importance. “Downcasts” make up the lowest-ranking category, sleeping under cots, forced to be sexual receptacles, and acting as literal slaves to the rest. “If a “downcast” even looks me in the eye,” says one remorseless higher-up, “I’ll smash his face.”
Sergei, imprisoned for murder, assault, and robbery, explains that the sailing ships marking his flesh indicate that he has lived “the roaming life.” Meanwhile, he explains that a pirate is the mark of a robbery, the skull is indicative of murder, and the likeness of a hooded executioner is usually associated with a hardened “killer.” Crosses identify the highly respected “Thief In Law.”
As “The Mark of Cain” continues, we’re transported to a handful of other convict-jammed hell holes, including a women’s penitentiary where inhabitants are confined for primarily substance abuse-related charges.
In addition to the glimpses of this system-wide human art gallery, we hear firsthand testimonies of degradation and torture that seem… well, like something out of a movie. A popular means of punishing a snitch – or extracting information – is dubbed “The Cell Press”, in which the marked man must share a room with up to 26 other inmates. “They beat you excessively,” states a seen-it-all con, “and take away your honor, if you know what I mean.” Another inmate recalls that during his transfer to the penitentiary, he was released into a tunnel, where guards “sicked the dogs on me, and pricked me with bayonets.” In one detention center, inmates are so crowded and closely confined that not all of them can stand at once in the cramped cells. A long-time resident of a prison known as The White Swan remembers a fellow occupant committing suicide by throwing himself onto a power saw during a woodworking session. For some, the option of death is more inviting than a life of intimidation, poor health, and despair.
Meanwhile, the film does not present its subjects in a softer-than-thou light, but comes to unflinching terms with why they ended up here. One gruff, dark-haired murderer talks of seeing his mother’s grave site desecrated, before avenging the act by decapitating the three robbers and impaling their heads on the cemetery’s fence posts.
We’re also provided an insider’s look into an intricate system of communication practiced by these incarcerated men. Like eager fishermen casting lines from their windows, prisoners attach strings to sticks and dangle them into between-cell alleyways. At lower levels, their fellow inmates can pull cigarettes, tea, and messages from the strings and replace them with similar items, in a kind of makeshift bartering system. Meanwhile, Lambert contrasts images of men strumming guitar strings and belting out soulful ballads during music gatherings, with the harsh, rust and metal landscape of fences, barbed wires, antennas, bars, and keys that surround such vanquished individuals.
“The Mark of Cain” concludes with a telling commentary by a handful of the older, more experienced prisoners, who mention that even in this relatively lawless subculture, they lament the erosion of tradition. One bearded gent shakes his head, stating that with the “older generation” of inmate, tattoos were a literal map of one’s history, with intimate, personalized images. Vikran, an older prisoner who sports a body etched with the likenesses of Lenin and Marx, says that back in Communist times, “if you had tattoos of Soviet leaders, the guardsmen would not shoot you.” Eagles were another popular tattoo during the twenties and thirties.
The new, post-communist generation of younger residents, however, are content to merely choose the latest trendy Chinese motif, or sport a skull ‘n crossbones logo simply because it looks tough. As democracy takes hold in Russia, so do equally trivial tattoos featuring dollar signs and western icons. The tats etched during these different eras act as an unlikely metaphor to illustrate how the country’s values have changed during Russia’s communist-to-democracy upheaval.
“The Mark of Cain” is one of those gut-wrenching, mesmerizing documentaries that makes most crime-themed feature films look cartoonish, contrived, and insincere by comparison. By means of soot-based ink forced beneath the skin, Lambert’s unique vision acts as testimony, that even under the most wretched of settings, human expression finds a way to bloom.