Russia (109 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Somewhat slight compared to his earlier efforts, THE RETURN (2003) and THE BANISHMENT (2007), this is a subtle film that delves into the heart of the Russian conscience, where a wordless ten–minute opening into the empty expanse of a meticulously clean, thoroughly modern and luxurious yet seemingly cold and sterile Moscow condominium sets the scene for an unsparing examination of class consciousness. Something of a generational morality tale where the future looks hopeless and overly bleak, this is a slow moving character exposé, almost a theater piece, where what’s most significant is the developing interior worlds of the characters, given a very novelesque structure of what turns out to be a modern day variation on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Centered around two main characters, a retired couple, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in separate bedrooms, each with their own television sets, where every morning she opens the curtains and wakes him up, where her role is carefully defined around the subordinate position of serving him, like a nursemaid, where it’s a portrait of two entirely separate worlds. Extending further is the world of their children, each through previous marriages, where Vladimir’s mostly unseen and distant daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), seems to live a hedonistic and carefree existence, accustomed to being taken care of all her life by the support of her father, while Elena’s aloof teenage son lives in a state of abject poverty with his perpetually idle father and nagging mother in a tenement housing project sitting adjacent to 3 nuclear power smokestacks. The dismal picture of their blighted lives says it all, where Elena is constantly hounded for money, but Vladimir is unyielding when it comes to offering help, wondering why he should support a family whose own father won’t get off his unemployed ass and get a job to help support his own family? When Elena tries to compare her son’s situation with his daughter, Vladimir refuses to hear any more on the subject, claiming even though his sarcastically hostile daughter is no great prize, he’s at least fulfilling his fatherly obligation. What to do about their future is the subject of the film’s moral center, told through alternating characters, one living under the protection of supreme comfort, while the other can be seen traipsing through the graffiti-laden slums to visit her son and grandson.
Having met late in life, their lives were already structured, as Elena was the nurse in the hospital several years ago when they met, and has continued serving that same role in marriage. Something of a control freak, Vladimir is particular about having things exactly his way, where there isn’t an ounce of recognition or awareness of how he’s treating his wife, while she dutifully submits to each and every one of his commands, never expressing any sign of resentment. Under the surface, however, she is boiling at her husband’s refusal to take her family seriously. For all practical purposes, this is the set up, with no other background information provided other than the acute visual detail captured by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who worked on the director’s earlier films as well, and the splendid intermittent use of the 3rd Movement of Phillip Glass’s Symphony #3, a tense and pulsating use of throbbing strings that effectively becomes the voice of the subconscious. Vladimir’s sense of control can be see in this wordless car driving sequence that expresses a rather sophisticated sense of choice, Elena (2011) - Car driving scene - YouTube (2:46), where the haunting Glass music comes in at the end. Shortly afterwards, he suffers a heart attack at the gym, literally forcing him to confront his mortality. One of the best scenes in the film is the hospital visit by his daughter, the simply brilliant Elena Lyadova, who is haughty and cynical, just like her father, but surprisingly eloquent, Elena 2011 - YouTube (5:16), where the cameraman can’t take his gaze off her fascinating performance. This visit seems to solidify his view that he needs to write a will, informing Elena that she will receive a generous monthly stipend, but his daughter will inherit everything else. This sends Elena into a state of flux, her hopes for her son dashed, as she sees Katerina as a spoiled and ungrateful child, someone who couldn’t be less appreciative of her father, only using him for money. With few spoken words between the two of them, Elena has to wordlessly convey the plaguing guilt of the young Raskolnikov, as she wonders if righting a wrong by committing an unthinkable mortal sin is permissible if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose, where her transformation is chilling.
Like the novel, the film barely touches upon the crime, but lingers instead on the unintended interior consequences of the punishment, where Elena skillfully covers up the tracks of her foul deed, where earlier in the film Katrina understood her well, claiming she played the part well of a mournful and grieving wife, where in the hospital her words to her father haunt the final moments of the film, like a Macbethian witch’s prophecy: “It’s irresponsible to produce offspring that you know are going to be sick and doomed, since the parents are just as sick and doomed.” If Zvyaguintsev films produce anything, they brilliantly foreshadow a bleak future, where Elena struggles with a Mephistophelian choice to prevent a gloomy future for her grandson Sasha, where his parents are elated when she suddenly has available cash to bribe his way into college, rescuing her grandson from the inevitable fate of being forced to join the army, seen as a fate worse than prison. He barely acknowledges her actions however, much like Elena feared Katerina would react, when the director then shows us the real face of the Russian future. As the electricity goes out in the tenement housing projects turning the apartment dark, Sasha goes outside and joins a gang of others waiting for him that get liquored up, and in an exquisite example of the best uses of a hand-held camera, follow the group as they hastily approach a clearing in front of the nuclear power smokestacks with the precision of a military strike, where in a riveting sequence they attack a group of outsiders huddling next to a fire, savagely kicking and beating them all to within an inch of their lives, a senseless act of ultraviolence that’s right out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a stormtrooping, boot-kicking, neo-Nazi vision of disillusioned youth that’s becoming all too common an occurrence these days, almost always alcohol fueled. Like the wordless emptiness of the opening sequence, the final sequence is eerily similar, with the tenement dwellers now inhabiting the luxurious condo, bringing with them their learned habits of drunken idleness and shirking responsibility, soulless creatures who are literally pretenders to the human race.