On this day, September 13th, in 2007 the film Eastern Promises was given a limited release in Russia 5 days after its premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was awarded the festivals Audience prize for the best film on the 15th.
Eastern Promises is one of the few films to explore the murky world of the Russian Mafia and it is, for me, one of the most underrated films in the last decade.
Directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen the film was released just a couple of years after the pair teamed up for another brilliant and underrated movie A History Of Violence. Eastern Promises also has the excellent Naomi Watts and one of my favourite actors of all time Vincent Cassel.
Set in London, the film sees Watt’s Character Anna Khitrova drawn into the criminal underworld after delivering the baby of 14 year old girl. The girl dies in childbirth and Anna uses her diary to try to track down her family to find someone who could look after the baby.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading this and go and give it a watch. There will be some spoilers crucial to the film coming up so we don’t want to ruin your experience.
You don’t need to be an expert in Russian Mafia history to enjoy the film but if you do want to find out a bit more I could not recommend the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volumes 1, 2 and 3 highly enough.
The books provide a fascinating look at the conditions and rituals of Russian prison life and give you a better understanding of what the tattoos you see worn by Viggo Mortensen’s character in the movie mean.
The tattoos reveal what kind of criminal you are, where you are from, where you served time, how long you served among and most importantly your rank among other things.
You will also hear a lot of references to characters being a “Vor” which means thief. The Vory V Zakone or “thieves in law” were leaders in Soviet Gulags where their code of honour became more defined and regimented. These are the equivalent of ‘Made Men’ for any fans of Mafia films.
As I have previously mentioned, I hold this film in high regard and with any film I get into I want to know as much as I can about it. In doing so I found that there was a planned sequel that never appeared, when you see the ending it kind of feels like there is more of this story to be told so hopefully one day we might see it. Anyway, here are some of the more interesting pieces of trivia I found about Eastern Promises.
During filming there were stories of Viggo Mortensen going out afterwards with some of the tattoos still visible and causing a bit of concern among people who didn’t know him as an actor.
Despite the tattoos being a huge part of his character, you can still see his own tattoo which reads “the nine” in Elvish that he got after the Lord of the Rings films.
In order to give the best performances possible for their respective roles, Naomi Watts spent time in the Whittington Hospital to understand how a midwife would react in certain situations. Viggo Mortensen traveled to Russia alone and studies books about the Russian Mafia and their tattoos (I can only speculate but I’d be surprised if the books I mentioned before weren’t in there).
The role of Semyon, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl was based on alleged Russian Mafia boss Semion Mogilevich and the scene where he is seen playing the violin is actually him.
The famous scene that sees Mortensen’s Character point two fingers to his throat has caused some confusion as to its meaning. Despite looking pretty bad ass some take it to be a threat and there are rumours that some Russian Criminals actually adopted the gesture like some Italian Mafia were influenced by films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Others claim that it means ‘you are drunk’ which would also fit in to the film.
Finally here is what his Tattoos actually mean;
The 3 Cupolas (Towers) on his back: These mean that he has served 3 terms in prison.
Virgin Mary with Child on abdomen: I am true to my friends / My conscience is clear (it can also mean “prison is my home”).
Raven on shoulder: Death, I am not yours.
Starburst on finger: I became a criminal because of poverty and a broken home.
Cross on finger: I was in the Crosses (a prison in St. Petersburg).
Black-and-white diamond on finger: I deny official authority / I disobeyed rules while in prison.
Grim Reaper on abdomen: Death is always waiting for me.
Sun and sea with Cyrillic “CEBEP” (север) (north) on back of hand: I was in prison in the север (pronounced “sever”).
Crucifix on chest: Professional Thief / I will not betray you.
Skull on shoulder: Stay away from me / Murderer.
Tattoos around ankles: “Where are you going?” and “What the fuck do you care?” written in Russian.
The stars on his knees: he has been made a lieutenant in the vory v zakone and he will never kneel (literally or figuratively) to any authority again, i.e., kneeling on the stars is a grave insult to the new rank. The number of points on each star are also meant to indicate the number of years served in prison. He is also given 2 identical stars on both sides of his chest.
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