I often run into the same problem when deciding my disposition toward a documentary. With documentary, should content eclipse form? I can spot a formally superior documentary from afar (Grey Gardens always comes to mind), but should I like a film less if the content being presented remains strong while the film itself might not be? That’s the case with Alix Lambert’s The Mark of Cain, which is probably best known as one of the inspirations for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. The film captures candid interviews with Russian prisoners and exposes meaning to ritual of tattooing. It also focuses on the harsh conditions of torture and living conditions in Russian prisons in the same breath.
Formally, The Mark of Cain is a mess. While I can’t deny Lambert’s interest in showing us the realities of Russian prisons, I can still question its inclusion in an otherwise separate documentary. The film is also edited by someone who just discovered Final Cut with the silly playing card wipe that signals a change in interviewee. However, The Mark of Cain is absolutely captivating, an hour and fifteen minutes of remarkable power and insight into a world hidden to most people. So what do I do with The Mark of Cain? The film probably remains one of the finer examples of a documentary that triumphs in its content, allowing a viewer to kindly forgive the filmmaker’s missteps.