Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Top Ten List #4 Loveless (Nelyubov)

Director Andrei Zvyagintzev

LOVELESS (Nelyubov)                           A-                   
Russia  France  Germany  Belgium  (127 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Andrei Zvyagintzev          

He who controls the past controls the future.  He who controls the present controls the past.
—George Orwell, 1984, published in 1949

A meditation on absence that takes aim at the moral rot that pervades throughout modern day Russia with its return to Stalinization, starting with the family structure, but it’s a stand-in for what ails the entire corrupt system, with what amounts to a neo-fascist Russian mafia running the government, feeding the populace a pack of lies on a single station propaganda TV network constantly seen running in the background, offering only the Russian view of the annexation of neighboring Ukraine, sending in Russian troops of support, spouting anti-Ukrainian propaganda, not any different than the Fox News network that propagates the same in America, as both have distinct political aims in propping up only their points of view, not allowing any oppositional viewpoints, feeding into their nationalist sentiment.  This narrowing of interests plays into a less curious and poorly educated public, but also one that is cynically repelled by official authoritative governmental views, deemed untrustworthy and uncaring, so there’s a nihilist rebellion against any and all news outlets fed by Russian authorities, yet that’s all there is, as all other democratic movements and institutions are suppressed and eliminated, leaving only a single party in power, defined by heartlessness and greed.  The idea that anyone in this government actually cares about anything other than themselves is laughable, as they’re too busy funneling money into their own personal coffers, enjoying their special status of power and privilege, while making sure anyone that gets too close is eliminated.  This is the system that runs the country.  How many times have we seen Putin arrest oppositional candidates, and imprison or exterminate people with opposing views, including lawyers, journalists, political candidates, or former government operatives, even while living abroad in apparent safety (More of Kremlin's Opponents Are Ending Up Dead - The New York ... August 20, 2016, Dozens of Russian deaths cast suspicion on President Vladimir Putin May 2, 2017, also The long, terrifying history of Russian dissidents ... - Washington Post March 6, 2018).  Under this system, how can anyone challenge the rule of power?  Do we really believe there’s any hint of democracy?  The authoritative tyranny has filtered down to a new state of purgatory, with each new generation more doomed than the last, force-fed what the government wants them to know, creating a populace of sheepish disinterest caught up in a paralysis of political torpor.  What it amounts to is a moral wasteland, a retreat into the darkness, with blighted lives finding it harder and harder to survive in this wintry abyss.  What’s perhaps shocking is the extent to which this all plays out before our eyes in a post-communist world (where Putin these days is spouting a fondness for the bygone days of an imperial Soviet Union, Putin says he wishes the Soviet Union had not collapsed. Many Russians agree.), featuring some of the most selfish and despicable characters to ever appear on a movie screen, exhibiting a complete absence of self-awareness.  But there is no hint of gangsterism or oligarchs, instead what increases the level of toxicity is their very ordinariness, as they simply don’t have the capacity to care. 

Zvyagintsev has had a contentious relationship with the Putin government, whose stance has been to limit the young director’s influence among the masses, where his films are seen by a precarious few in Russia, only about 350,000 in a nation of 145 million, with many openly critical for what they call his anti-Russian viewpoint.  This is in the tradition of artists and filmmakers, including Ai Weiwei in China, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and a host of others in Iran, R. W. Fassbinder in Germany, even Akira Kurosawa in Japan, where the same was said about Tarkovsky in Russia nearly 50 years ago, with many conservatives at home brooding about films being fully embraced and having broader reach in the Western world.  This film is no different, awarded the Jury prize (3rd place) in the premiere at Cannes.  The opening sequence is utterly ghastly, as we meet 12-year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) playing alone alongside a riverbank after school, beautifully framed against a natural world, yet shortly afterwards he’s the subject of a horrid parental squabble.  Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are a married, financially successful middle class couple on the verge of divorce who are utterly consumed with hatred, despising everything about the other, not wanting to be in the same room, yet they fight over who should take care of the kid, each suggesting it should be the other, as neither one wants to be tied down with “baggage” in a new relationship, preferring to start anew, with no signs connecting them to this disastrous marriage.  Acknowledging their relationship is a failure, Alyosha is used as a battering ram in a vicious custody case, as neither parent wants to have anything to do with him, with thoughts of sending him off to boarding school, and then the army, the Russian method for dumping unwanted children.  The camera finds a distraught Alyosha in tears having to listen to all this behind the bathroom door, where there are no hidden secrets, as it feels more like an execution, with each parent trying harder to remove him from their lives.  With this vile opening, what could possibly follow that?  What we see is that both Boris and Zhenya have already moved on in their lives, without Alyosha, each already with a new partner, showing extended sex scenes, Boris with an extremely pregnant Masha (Marina Vasilyeva), who seems young and completely unambitious, perhaps hoping to catch a wealthier man on the rebound, while Zhenya is matched with an older, wealthier man of means, Anton (Andris Keišs), perhaps a father figure, living in an immaculately designed house with floor to ceiling windows overlooking a thicket of trees.  Both pour out their heart and soul to their new partners, pledging undying love, yet clearly leaving Alyosha out of the picture.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise when Alyosha disappears altogether, discovered missing, where the parents who couldn’t give a damn are suddenly forced into crisis mode.  Unwanted children feature prominently in Zvyagintsev’s work, including a father hideously abandoning his son in the opening moments of THE RETURN (2003), only to return years later as a complete stranger in a weak attempt to reconcile, while a woman is pressured to have an abortion in THE BANISHMENT (2007) by a husband that wrongly assumes it was fathered by someone else.  Coming on the heels of Elena (2011) and 2015 Top Ten List #5 Leviathan (Leviafan), Zvyagintsev has established a reputation for big themes and epic grandeur, all films shot by the same extraordinary cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, expressing a meticulous artistic stylishness that is uniquely his own, where he may be the Paul Thomas Anderson of Russia, though with greater international acclaim and much more insistent upon a darker, social realist aesthetic.

Of particular significance is the profound innocence of young Alyosha, the chosen name, by the way, of the youngest and most innocent brother (almost saintly) in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, especially when contrasted against such a repugnant figure as his mother, easily one of the more vile creatures to ever grace the screen.  While the police are too busy with more severe crimes, giving them the brush off, telling them most kids return home within a week, referring them instead to a volunteer agency whose sole expertise is investigating missing persons.  Headed by Ivan, (Aleksey Fateev), the chief coordinator of the search and rescue team (who can’t help but notice dysfunctional parents who simply don’t care about their child), they are a highly skilled agency, showing military precision and expertise, combing the neighborhood, vacant areas, and the nearby forests, putting up flyers on lampposts or in subway tunnels, while sending the parents, along with a trained professional, off to visit grandma (Nataliya Potapova) to see if he is hiding there.  This visit erupts into one of the most monstrous portrayals imaginable, “Stalin in a skirt,” as Boris calls her, as grandma offers a neverending barrage of profanity-laden indignation that is an assault to the senses, a rapid-fire critique of this unwanted invasion of her personal space, laying into both of them, treating them to seething anger and open hostility until they leave the premises.  Her vicious, overbearing nature is what drove Zhenya from the home, complaining bitterly on the ride home about what a horrible decision it was to meet Boris and get pregnant, which was the worst of all possible choices, exactly what her mother warned her about, constantly berating Boris, claiming his influence literally ruined her life, going on a rampage where she reiterates that she never loved him and never wanted to have a child, until he’s had enough and simply dumps her on the side of the road.  This disavowal of any heartfelt interest in her own child is the centerpiece of the film, as it runs constant throughout, where no regret is shown for Alyosha, or the empty space he used to fill, only a narcissistic self-obsession.  This is such a complete contrast to the view of Mother Russia, implying a protective spirit, an openly embracing expression to describe the indescribable reach of the motherland, guardian of the Russian soul, always patient and long suffering, with inhabitants drawing sustenance from her care, including the construction of statues and war memorials commemorating the dead, where an eternally valiant and heroic Mother Earth is as valorized in Russia as Madonna artworks and Mary, Mother of God in Christian circles.  Pudovkin’s landmark silent film MOTHER (Мat) (1926), a reworked adaptation of a Maxim Gorky novel, leaves a similar lasting impression, with the titular character becoming an icon of Russian suffering and sorrow.  In this film it is a stark reminder just how casually and nonchalantly Alyosha was ignored and ultimately left alone to suffer his own ignoble fate, where the parents didn’t even notice he was missing until receiving a call from the school reporting a two-day absence.  And even then, they seemed more concerned at heaping blame and scorn at one another.

Born out of Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), with traces of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), this film beautifully captures the barren landscape and chill of winter snow, among the more haunting images in the film, including a view just outside Alyosha’s window of a snowy park filled with children on sleds, an almost dreamlike view of the childhood he never had, yet also perhaps a reference to Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow, (Jäger im Schnee (Winter) - Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), a painting used by Tarkovsky in both SOLARIS (1972) and THE MIRROR (1975).  Among the more poignant images in the film are views of falling snow seen out the window, as it becomes synonymous with Alyosha’s disappearance, perhaps driven to despair by the ugly circumstances at home, and left to fend for himself in the wintry elements.  Ivan gets around to interviewing Alyosha’s only school friend, done patiently, showing kindness and respect, revealing a secret hideout in the woods, which sets the gears in motion.  In the remnants of former Soviet structures that have long since been abandoned, now crumbling in a state of decay, with demolished windows, broken glass, and syringes strewn along the floor, even a few chairs and tables left behind, the search takes us back into the Tarkovsky era, with rain dripping through the roof, showing architecture in a state of dysfunction and disuse, a reminder of a broken past.  However, the floor by floor search reveals Alyosha’s jacket, but nothing more, yet viewers must be impressed by the thorough and highly methodical nature of such a professional search, a major point of emphasis in the film.  It is also Ivan who discovers a hospital runaway and finally a corpse in the morgue that fits the description of the missing boy, shown ever so discreetly.  Arguably the best scene in the film is the parent’s reaction, as it matches Alyosha’s horrified expression from behind the bathroom door, as now it is the parent’s time to weep.  What’s most startling, however, is their firm denial that this is their son (while their uncontrolled emotions show just the opposite), taking offense at the mere suggestion of a DNA sample, refusing to believe it has come to this.  The arrogance on display is simply stunning, as there is no debt of thanks or appreciation for all the hard work by community volunteers in search of finding this boy, which couldn’t have been more thorough, carried out by ordinary people who rise to the occasion, setting an exemplary example.  As normal life resumes, we see foreign construction workers tearing down the walls of Alyosha’s room, resembling the abandoned buildings seen earlier, all of which recalls the film style of Kiarostami shooting in the catastrophic ruins of the Koker earthquake, especially LIFE, AND NOTHING MORE… (1992), which also includes gorgeous panoramic vistas viewed through the rubble of sheep grazing peacefully in the fields, seen through the open space of what was once a window.  Zvyagintsev uses this exact same cinematic technique to reveal a world inhabited by gently falling snow, the soft snow of forgetting, literally burying the memory of this forgotten child.  In a brief epilogue, time jumps ahead a few years, with both parents getting on with their new lives, where Boris shows an equal amount of disdain and disinterest in his new child, while Zhenya, wearing a sweat suit with the unmistakable Russian letters emblazoned across her chest, imports little to nothing from the experience, where the trajectory of Sisyphean repetition is on automatic repeat.   

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