Film - Jonathan Romney on the Russian film-maker Alexei Balabanov

Over the past decade, you might have thought that Russia had quietly slipped off the map of world cinema, as if nothing had happened at all since Tarkovsky. The last new name to cause an international stir was Alexander Sokurov, whose solemn miniature Mother and Son was a small but significant hit on the British art-house circuit - I suspect, because it so neatly fitted every Slavic stereotype of moody aesthetic spirituality.

Occasionally, however, stronger and stranger stuff emerges on the festival circuit - with luck, British viewers might even get to see Alexei Guerman's Khroustaliov, My Car!, a magisterial if impenetrable delirium set in the late Stalin years. And this month sees the release of two films by a director who certainly deserves cult status in the west - and I mean "cult" in either the David Lynch or the Quentin Tarantino sense. Alexei Balabanov is a former Soviet Army translator from Sverdlovsk who has made four features, only one of which could remotely be described as realistic. His first two were an impressionistic reworking of Beckett's Happy Days and a version of Kafka's The Castle, set in an anachronistic non-place somewhere between the early 1900s and Brueghel's Middle Ages.

But his 1997 film, Brother, was a total departure - an essay in urban gangsterism that, unsurprisingly, was Balabanov's biggest success, selling over 400,000 video copies in its first five months of release. It's a story of the new Russian mafia, the word brat (brother) having much of the same meaning as "wiseguy" would in a Scorsese film. Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr) is a seemingly clueless young ex-soldier who goes to St Petersburg to visit his mobster brother Vitenka (played by Balabanov's regular star Viktor Suhorukov, an unnerving bald-headed grinner). Danila is entrusted with the job of removing a Chechen rival to the Russian gang, and proves surprisingly good at killing.

Danila has become an anti-hero icon with young Russian audiences, partly because he's so decidedly ordinary - a sullen, badly dressed lunk; the husky-voiced Bodrov could be a heartthrob, but only just. Danila's only real interest in life is his Discman, loaded with CDs by the distinctly unfashionable Russian rock band Nautilus. But he takes no nonsense, gets what he wants with a minimum of fuss, and for all his cold-bloodedness, has a distinct element of white knight about him. He befriends and protects an elderly German derelict, hangs out with the homeless underclass instead of aspiring to the good life, even takes a firm hand with fare-dodgers. As movie hard men go, he seems to aspire, in his unassuming way, to the Charles Bronson vigilante model.

Balabanov has been roundly attacked in Russia - most prominently by the veteran film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov - for offering young audiences a reprehensible role model, for promoting violence (Brother is mild in this respect, albeit with a ruthless streak), even for endorsing Danila's anti-semitic, xenophobic attitudes. But the film isn't quite so easy to pin down to a clear viewpoint. It's rare among recent gangster films in that its prime concern is neither the criminal lifestyle nor machismo. It has no interest in glamour - Danila is simply a workman at the end of a business chain of exploitation, an adept technician who picks up the skills, who could just as easily be a truck driver or a policeman, but who coolly wastes the opposition whenever necessary. He doesn't even do that well from the proceeds. This is a downbeat view of crime as the least frustrating career option in a depressed, lawless society: it may keep you alive, but don't expect much job satisfaction or even excitement.

Balabanov's subsequent film, Of Freaks and Men, is even more morally indeterminate, as well as a visual and narrative leap into the unknown that makes absolutely no claims to realism. Set in St Petersburg in the 1900s, it's an eccentrically nasty story of two genteel families and a gang of pornographers, specialists in early cinematograph footage of spanking babushkas. This is chilling, perverse stuff, revelling in more taboo topics than the average Peter Greenaway film - blindness, porn, flagellation, Siamese twins and Dostoyevskian epilepsy. It's also shot in decorously archaic sepia, which makes it all the more disturbing.

Maintaining a tone of coldly bemused detachment throughout, Of Freaks and Men succeeds in being elegantly sordid from start to finish: an altogether liberating gesture, surely, for a national cinema that from its very early days has been obliged to present itself as high-minded and ideologically weighty. There's no danger of that with Balabanov: his films can't easily be made to yield straightforward lessons either about morality or about the state of Russian society. In person, Balabanov has a reputation for elusiveness, baffling journalists with the assertions that he's a patriot and an Orthodox Christian and that "the future is Russian". He may be in deadly earnest, but that doesn't make him any less a corrosive provocateur - a patriot perhaps, but one who glories in a virulently subversive attitude towards his national cinema tradition.

Brother (15) is at the ICA, ABC Swiss Centre and at selected cinemas nationwide; Of Freaks and Men (18) is at the Curzon Soho from 14 April

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy