By John Lichman | April 26, 2010

War stories are an incredible treat for a hungry audience. They have all the thrill of violence without any of that pesky mental trauma to keep us questioning what we’ve done. War’s interesting, but so is organized crime—it represents a head over heels fascination with power, violence and a pulp sensibility of being someone.

Of course Alexander Gentlelev’s “Thieves by Law” is the flashy result for the oral history of Russian organized crime as told by three survivors from the last 24 years within that world.

The origins of the vori v zakone (“Thieves by Law”) are traced to Stalin’s work camps in the 1930s, where prisoners adopted a mentality to survive, but also overcame their jailers by remaining quiet and working out differences between each other; one mentions having been put into a KGB sponsored school where a guard would beat everyone for any reason. While working a forge, the guard came up behind him and got a pair of hot iron clamps on his face followed by a crowbar (“he lived.”) 

Our protagonists—Gentlelev’s constant reference to our three points of view—fall under the trinity of an old “Esha,” (roof) for protecting organizations’ banks; a nebulous leader who remains in an undisclosed location outside Moscow flanked by his men and a former thief who lives by the bribe and trots around his home in sandals with the inscription: “I’ve made it in life.”

“I have, haven’t I,” he says in a boast that sounds more like a rhetorical question, as the camera zooms in to his feet.

The thieves’ code relies on keeping no family, no property and never establishing roots. Which is funny, because as we learn more about our subjects, at least two of them mention wives and daughters during casual asides. Despite sounding noble, the code comes across as honorable as being a made man did in “Goodfellas.” Gentlelev forms a chronology to show how the Thieves went from underground figures to hiding in plain sight thanks to privatization and global expansion, even so far as many gang leaders retreating to Israel due to the ease of gaining a passport.

While “Thieves” is an apt successor to Gentelev’s other films (“The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs” and “Operation Successor,” about the 2008 Russian Presidential election) it isn’t worth more than being a curio to a group that gained notoriety thanks to Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” Though there is the sense that, despite speaking with Gentelev, his protagonists are presenting more of a show for the audience than what they actually expect: one now is on the board of the Catholic Church in Cannes, France and another makes the equivalent of Mexican Narco Cinema based on his own experiences and others. As one actor reclines in her chair, he snaps at her to be more serious since her character will die shortly.

“At the end, everyone is dead. No one is left.”

Yet that isn’t entirely true. Those that survived are thriving now on war stories and a renewed interest in their history. “Thieves,” in a twisted way, isn’t any different than the usual route for its subjects: a bunch of gory and incredibly violent tales brushed with machismo delivered with enough charm and sparkle that they may still be partaking of the Thieves’ life.

Their cowboy days are being replaced by the industrial revolution in their case. Who cares about how a building gets funded—unless we find out there are bodies in the base.

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