(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Alexi Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Pokhodaev, Alexi Rozin, Kristina Pakarina, Lesya Kudryashova, Valery Grishko, Igor Sergeev, Dimitri Byovski-Romashov, Igor Savochkin, Sergei Borisov, Sergei Bachurski, Natalya Garustovich, Irina Gavra. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
Life can be unrelentingly bleak. When you live in a coastal town in the northwestern fringes of Russia, where corruption is how it’s always been and ever going to be, how does a single man find justice when the entire system is rigged against him?
Kolya (Serebryakov) is a mechanic living in just such a town. He lives with his son Roman (Pokhodaev) from his first marriage, and his second wife Lilya (Lyadova) in a house that has a stunning view of the harbor, and when the sun is shining (a rare occurrence admittedly) the front windows allow a great amount of light into the small but cozy home. There are worse places to be.
Until the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Madyanov) rests his eyes on the land and realizes that it could be a gold mine for him. However, he has to get his hands on it and that won’t be easy or legal – Kolya doesn’t want to sell. His grandfather built the home with his own two hands after all. But Vadim usually gets what he wants and he uses arcane laws to steal the land right from under Kolya.
However, Kolya knows a guy. In this case, it’s the lawyer Dmitri (Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy of Kolya. Dmitri has the goods on Vadim which might be enough to call off the dogs on Kolya. However, when Dmitri is invited by one of Kolya’s best friends for an afternoon of target shooting, events will transpire that will lead to an abrupt reversal of fortune that will leave none of those involved in the story unaffected.
It is incredible to me that this movie, a pointed indictment at corruption not only in the Russian legal system but in the Russian soul, would have been selected by Russia as their nominee for the Foreign Language film Oscar but not only was it submitted, it made the final short list, losing eventually to Ida for the statuette. I can see why critics and Academy voters loved this movie.
It is, however, unrelentingly bleak which is I suppose not to be unexpected from a Russian film – Russian literature and Russian movies are notorious for their grim outlook. This isn’t a happy, uplifting movie that is going to make you feel better about things; this is a movie about the travails of life, how those who have get the upper hand on those who don’t and how they generally wield it like a club against them. It’s not a pretty picture.
However, in this case, it is a well-acted picture, particularly in the case of Lyadova as the long-suffering Lilya. Her expression is mournful, her demeanor is mousy. Kolya is a bit of a hothead, given to smacking his son upside the head when he is rude which, as a teenage boy, is most of the time. Roman saves most of his vitriol for Lilya whom he clearly doesn’t care for much. There is some question as to what happened to the first wife and when – the film doesn’t explain that bit of particular information, but one gets the sense that Roman knew his mom.
In fact, most of the cast is top-notch although they aren’t well known in the U.S. They have that dour Russian mentality of expecting the worst and usually having their expectations met. Other than the hopelessly arrogant and corrupt Vadim, they know their lot in life is to suffer and to get no justice in their suffering, so they drink.
And they drink a lot. They drink to drown their sorrows. They drink to celebrate. They drink when they go out shooting. They drink when they have a meal. They drink because it’s Wednesday. They drink because they’re awake. If ever there was a movie that would serve as a poster child for temperance, it’s this one. Kolya is the biggest drinker of the lot, a raging alcoholic even by Russian standards.
This isn’t a movie for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate it. There are some difficult moments here, some telegraphed and some not. There are also some light-hearted movies, such as when the group goes out on a shooting outing, they pull out pictures of old Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Stalin to use as targets. My friend Larry, a student of Russian customs and society, found that particularly amusing.
However, the amusements come few and far between here and depict a life in Russia that is cold, miserable and unfair. Which is a lot like life everywhere else for the most part (except for those equatorial nations where it is hot, miserable and unfair).
REASONS TO GO: Searing social commentary. Lyadova is a real find. Well-acted throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly grim.
FAMILY VALUES: Coarse language, some sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While based on actual events both in Russia and in the United States, the screenplay was written as a modern reworking of the Book of Job.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 8/10