Why the hell is an MST3K blog rising from the dead to review a forgotten Martin Scorcese film? I'd never heard of this movie until it suddenly became a meme, but I had a day off work and I figured I might as well see what all the fuss was about. Now I want to talk about what I saw, and this is the only movie blog I have, so I'm doing it here.
Ivan Goncharov is the biggest, baddest motherfucker east of the iron curtain, richer than a tsar and colder than a Siberian winter. He's got a beef with Neapolitan mafioso Mario Giglioli, so he heads to sunny Italy to confront him in person. His closest confidante, Andrey, thinks it's suicide to do this on Giglioli's home turf but accompanies Goncharov anyway out of loyalty. What follows is a two-hour dick-measuring contest as Goncharov and Giglioli try to out-intimidate each other, culminating in an orgy of gunfire where only one will be left standing... and this is the kind of movie where you can't take it for granted that it'll be the guy whose name is the title.
That's the ostensible plot, anyway. What makes Goncharov a far more interesting film than such an outline might imply is that the argument between the mobsters is just a backdrop. Having set up Goncharov's hard as steel, cold as ice reputation in the first act, the movie then sets about deconstructing it. Goncharov goes from a terrifying figure devoid of all morality to a tragic antihero, a man who has come to believe his own hype so completely that he can no longer let himself be human.
This is demonstrated mainly by watching the breakdown of his relationships over the course of the tense three days in Naples. The most important person in Goncharov's life is Andrey, the only one he comes near being vulnerable with. Their relationship is depicted as very touchy-feely in a literal sort of way, with Andrey helping Goncharov with his coat and shoes, lighting cigarettes for him, and touching his shoulder or arm as Goncharov confides in him. The framing emphasizes these touches in a very homoerotic way, and I don't think I've got my tumblr goggles on here. These guys have fucked.
As Goncharov becomes more and more obsessed with being tougher and more ruthless than Giglioli, whom he sees as an effeminate softie, Andrey tries to persuade him that the other man is not worth this sort of obsession. Whatever Giglioli did to insult Goncharov (we never find out), Andrey is of the opinion that they should just leave a dead horse in the asshole's bed and move on. Goncharov's pride will not allow him to do that, and the less subtle Andrey is in his attempts to dissuade him, the more Goncharov pushes him away, finally abandoning him entirely. The tragedy of the ending comes from the fact that Andrey refuses to abandon Goncharov in turn.
We also see Goncharov with his wife Katya. He is frequently cruel to her, and she tolerates it because he gives her expensive gifts and because she is seeking a vicarious mending of her relationship with her abusive father - she was never able to earn his love, but perhaps she can earn Goncharov's. This is doomed to failure, as much because of Goncharov as because Katya doesn't actually want it to succeed. Nursing a black eye, Katya pours her heart out to a bartender, Sofia, who tries to help her escape... but this cannot work out, either. As Katya herself says, she doesn't know who she is without her issues.
I am pleased to note, by the way, that every single major character in the movie is named and I can remember them all, which is a bit of a treat for me (I need to watch good movies more often). The only exception is Goncharov himself. The end credits list him as Ivan, but nobody ever calls him that, not even Andrey or Katya. In a flashback scene with his parents, neither calls him by name. This flashback, fascinatingly, is filmed in the first person, looking through Goncharov's own eyes. We are not allowed to see him as a younger, softer man. He refuses to show that side of himself even in the privacy of his memories.
These quieter moments contrast with scenes of ever-escalating brutality, as the Russians and Italians try to force each other to back down by the murder of underlings. The fact that it is literally a contest, and that Goncharov is aware of this and describes it as such, makes the worsening violence ever more meaningless. The death of Giglioli's confessor is particularly awful, and the way Goncharov's goons treat the chapel has to be ten times worse if you're Catholic (fun fact: this scene is apparently removed from the Italian version on Netflix, which must make what Andrey says while waiting for the train into a hell of a non sequitur).
At the climax, the two really can't do anything but kill each other, because it's the only place left to go. Giglioli's priest and mistress are dead. Goncharov's men are almost all dead or out of action, and Goncharov believes Andrey to be dead. The initial insult, whatever it was, is no longer relevant. They have pushed each other to a place where reconciliation is unthinkable. Whoever blinks first loses, but both have already lost so much that victory means nothing. Worse, each recognizes that the other is in the same position, and neither can acknowledge it.
This means Goncharov can also moonlight as an examination of violence in media. Why do movies showcase violence, and why do we watch it? The initial posturing serves a purpose - Goncharov wants Giglioli to know he's here to personally demand an apology, and Giglioli wants Goncharov to know he's outnumbered and should quit while he still can. But once it becomes an exercise in one-up-manship, the 'messages’ vanish and the men are now killing for the sake of killing. Violence in movies can often be gore for gore's sake, pulling out more and more stops in the effort to shock an audience that has been desensitized by years and years of this. That is what Goncharov and Giglioli are doing to each other. Truly distressing moments like the fate of the priest, or what Giuseppe "Icepick Joe" Cozzolino (dressed as a maid!) does to Sofia when he assumes she's Katya because she was in Katya's hotel room, make us wonder why we're watching this - and the mobsters wonder why they're doing it.
In the end, it's all just a blood-soaked version of the sunk cost fallacy. Goncharov had come too far in his vendetta to stop now. Andrey has followed him too far to turn back. Katya has been married to him too long to leave. Of course, any of them could quit at any time and escape from this terrible spiral, but they are unwilling to entertain the possibility. Like Goncharov himself, Andrey and Katya are prisoners of the identities they have built for themselves, and because their identities are so tied to him, they have to go down with him.
One thing I haven't seen a lot of discussion of on tumblr is the way the film uses the contrast in climate. Goncharov in Moscow is in his element. When you see his breath in the wintry air it's as if he's breathing smoke like a dragon. While other people huddle in the cold he stands up straight and tall. In Naples, on the other hand, he is out of place. He wears lighter clothing, but continues to choose long coats and upturned collars, while Giglioli goes around with his shirt unbuttoned. This should serve to emphasize Giglioli's home field advantage and yet, as we see through Goncharov's eyes, they just make Giglioli look soft. His apparent weakness makes Goncharov want to appear even stronger.
On a related note, it is interesting to me how sunlight is treated as something very unfriendly. In Russia, it glitters on ice crystals in the air and lights up condensation, harsh and white and giving no warmth whatsoever. In Italy it bakes and shimmers on stone and asphalt, casting harsh, black-edged shadows and emphasizing creased brows and frowning mouths. Outdoor scenes are, as far as I can tell, always hostile interactions. Even indoor scenes in natural light: the priest dies with harsh sunlight streaming in through the broken chapel window. When characters are softer with each other, it is always under artificial illumination. Sunlight is too bright, too revealing. People like this need some shadows to hide in.
Did I like this movie? That's a tough question. It's not really the type of movie you 'like'. It's definitely powerful and well-constructed, thoroughly absorbing and all that. There's a taste of Greek tragedy in the inevitability of the ending and the way Goncharov is eaten alive by hubris. But I wouldn't say I liked it. The characters are all terrible people whose arcs involve them getting worse, and the whole thing feels deeply claustrophobic, as if I, too, am trapped in Goncharov's downward spiral. When characters realize their mistakes, it is only when it's too late to correct them - but only in their own minds. It's a very pessimistic story, about human beings who are overcome by the very worst parts of themselves.
Is Goncharov deserving of all those glowing reviews? Yes. Was it unfairly snubbed at the Oscars because the academy was turned off by the violence? Probably. Will I ever watch it again? Fuck, no.
Excuse me, I have to go watch some Pixar movies if I ever want to smile again.