THE LAST GLADIATORS
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for language; sports violence. • Theater: St. Anthony Main
What’s a big-issues documentartian like Alex Gibney (“Client 9,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” ) doing making a film about professional hockey’s fist-swinging enforcers? Digging up an engrossing story, that’s what. The focus is Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who played 13 years in the NHL, dropped gloves like they were hot rocks and got more penalty minutes than almost anyone else in the league. Boston-born Nilan skated (and punched) mostly for the Montreal Canadiens, throwing almost as many jabs at team management as he did on the ice. “With Chris,” one commentator observes, “disrespect was everything.”
At the end of his career, he was in his 30s with no savings, no path forward and an increasing dependence on drink and drugs. For all his Neanderthal aggression and criminality, Nilan, now 55, is a likable subject and a nakedly candid one. His soul is a running wound and he exposes it to our view without shame. The opening sections of this film play like a greatest-hits clip collection, but when Gibney delves deeper into Nilan’s personality, it’s a magnetic portrait of a rinkside Raging Bull.
HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA
Unrated; in English and subtitled Russian. • Theater: Uptown
If you want a taste of life as it must have been for the Voyageurs of old, this documentary is a good place to start. It records the cycle of seasons in Bakhtia, Siberia, a remote village of 300 accessible only by helicopter or boat. The settlers trap sable and fish for pike without access to phones, running water or modern medicine. They even blacksmith their own tools.
Director Dmitry Vasyukov gives the region’s endless snowscapes a painterly, heroic beauty. There’s a nighttime fishing scene, illuminated only by a fire basket extended from the dinghy’s prow, that could hang on any museum wall. The ingenuity with which the locals set traps, create dugout canoes and hew their own skis is thrilling. And if you feel like a hardy pioneer after shoveling the driveway, you should see the settlers dislodge veritable icebergs from the tops of their thatched-roof dwellings.
The title is in no sense ironic. Vasyukov admires these independent spirits. While veteran director Werner Herzog provided editing advice and a voice-over narration, there’s a difference in perspective from most Herzog travelogues, which are entertainingly disdainful. Here there’s no chilly anthropological tone. The film looks up to its subjects, not down upon them. You will, too, when you see how intense the cold gets before they put on gloves. C.C.