The Reel Estate: Putin’s Russia
BY JOSEPH FAHIM
Cairo: In one of the most telling moments of Cyril Tuschi’s controversial, multi-layered documentary “Khodorkovsky,” the imprisoned Russian oil tycoon confesses that he and his business partners “broke ethical standards from today’s points of view. That is true. And we did shape some moral standards to suit ourselves. But our moral standards matched those of the society we lived in.”
In more ways than one, the statement of Khodorkovsky, widely known as the Russian Nelson Mandela, encapsulates the present moral condition of the former Soviet Union, a Russia that bears no resemblance to the ethically-demarcated nation of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gorky, a newly capitalist society consumed by greed, lust and political stagnation.
It’s this Russia that film master Andrei Zvyagintsev evokes so strongly, so tenaciously, in his third feature, “Elena,” a slow-burning moral fable with no payoff that nods to Woody Allen’s dramatic works “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point.”
The film opens with a long shot of a windowsill observed from the outside. The intimidating stillness is broken when a bird lands on a tree branch overlooking the window as the darkness of the adjacent room gradually starts to light up. This is the calm before the storm; the concealed uniformed world will soon be shaken, disrupted and fully exposed.
Nadezhda Markina is the eponymous character, a middle-aged nurse married to an elderly businessman, Vladimir (veteran filmmaker Andrey Smirnov) who used to be her former patient. The life of the pair is orderly. Sergey is pragmatic, aloof, inconsiderate and ingenuous. Elena is modest, caring, obedient yet circuitous. The class disparity between the two informs their mannerisms, interests, life-views and faith.
Elena moons as a wife, a housekeeper, a cook and a lover. She has one son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), an indolent unemployed bum with an equally idle child who’s been drafted by the military. Elena pleads with her husband to use his connections to get her teenage grandson into college (as a way out of the army) while continuing to financially support them. Vladimir refuses, causing a fracture in the pair’s marriage of interests.
The rupture deepens when Vladimir is struck by a heart attack that compels him to reconnect with his rebellious, estranged daughter Katarina (Yelena Lyadova). Confrontational, unruly and forthright, Katarina, the only honest character in the film, hides her vulnerability, her deep-seated love for her father, under a rigid, protective façade. Truth, that rare token in their world, is a luxury enjoyed only by the fearless, self-reliant few going against the norms.
The issue of inheritance forces Elena to prioritize her alliances, ultimately exposing the thin moral fabric of this society.
Zvyagintsev stormed into the international art-house scene with his monumental debut, “The Return,” surprise winner of the 2001 Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival and the first Russian film to earn this honor since Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan Childhood” in 1962. An atmospheric, thought-provoking and haunting tale of a demanding, cruel father returning from an unknown destination to reconnect with his two sons, “The Return” illustrated Zvyagintsev’s exemplary use of landscape and brilliant knack for mood creation and tension induction. His reliance on symbolism and allegory led critics to appoint him Tarkovsky’s new heir.
The father, many Russians believed, stood for Putin, the homecoming patriarch leading the nation to an unknown future, while the relationship of the boys with their mysterious father reflected the hazy, frail bond between Russia and its inexplicable past.
Zvyagintsev’s next feature, “The Banishment” (2008), was not as successful. Winner of the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Fest, this morose fable tells the story of a marriage hitting the skids when the young wife of a low-life gangster informs him that she’s having the child of another man.
Laborious, overlong and ill-defined, the narrative of the film was further bogged down by the heavy-handedness of the symbolism and the self-important treatment of the themes.
In both films, nature plays an imperative role in the course of the narrative, resembling a silent deity, an unreceptive witness to the cruelty and foolishness of man.
“Elena,” an astounding return to form, is the first Zvyagintsev set in a city. The brooding, foreboding nature is replaced by tall, shiny skyscrapers, miles away from the deserted countryside of “The Return” and “The Banishment.” The glossy surfaces of “Elena’s” world are deceptive, contrasting the decayed souls inhabiting them. Everything is indistinct in this place: integrity, justice and loyalty.
Putin’s new Russia is manifested in every small detail: Vladimir’s lavish, spacious loft, the fancy automobiles, the numberless gadgets, the disposable merchandise sold everywhere in town, the top-of-the-line video games, the TV game shows, and, most of all, the discrepancy between the upscale Moscow neighborhoods near the Kremlin and the depleted Soviet-era shantytowns at the outskirts (an incongruity obvious to the eyes of the average tourist). If “The Return” attempts to trace the splintered ties of Russia with its past, “Elena” denies the mere possibility of their existence. This is the new life Putin has given his people; a life of luxury, utter abandon and leisure, a life that is, nonetheless, devoid of freedom and free will, governed by a self-serving, ethically-dubious law.
Faith, one of the central themes of Zvyagintsev’s work, is handled with less reverence in the new picture. For commoners like Elena, faith is essential to her life, the one thread of hope found in a world that’s not her own, a world in which she plays secondary, ineffective roles, a world that constantly works against her. Vladimir, on the other hand, is wealthy and content enough to do without the kind of comfort offered by religion. In one scene, Elena rebukes her husband’s condescending comments about her son with a Bible passage. “And the last shall be the first,” she tells him. “Biblical fairy tales are for the poor and the foolish people,” he responds. “Equality and fraternity are only to be found in your heavenly kingdom.”
Elena’s wake-up call arrives with a crucial decision her husband makes, and that’s when she realizes that faith, goodness, are unrealistic principles to assume in this day and age. Divine justice is wishful thinking; the only attainable form of justice must be exacted by man. This is no “Crime and Punishment” where Roderick Raskolnikov spends what feels like an eternity contemplating his heinous deed and being rapidly eaten up by guilt and shame. In Putin’s Russia, crime goes unpunished and wrongdoers sleep unscrupulously in linen beds.
Visually, “Elena” is Zvyagintsev’s most concise picture to date. His camera is more fluid in movement and there are more cuts than his previous films, yet the frame composition is meticulous and the tight rhythm of the narrative is superbly controlled. A great addition to this milieu is Philip Glass’ fretful score, functioning in the same vein as Bernard Herrmann with Hitchcock, injecting the unpredictable narrative with ascending tension.
The most revealing scene in the film takes place near the end. Celebrating in Sergey’s flat, a power outage temporarily discontinues the fun. Dragged down in darkness by a group of hoodlums from the neighborhood, the grandson finds himself thrown in a random tussle with an unknown cause. Here, and for the first time in the film, the camera loses its composure; Zvyagintsev uses a hand-held camera to capture the sudden outburst of violence, shedding off the thin guise of civility enveloping this Darwinian land.
This is a dark and deeply nihilistic icon of contemporary Russia, a country suspended between light and darkness, lost in hate, aggression and dissipation. The Vladimir household is a microcosm of the whole of Russia: a dysfunctional family that has given up its principles for the capitalist dream. Putin gave Russia wealth, comfort and power, but in return, he took away the one thing that separated it from all the nations of the world: its soul.
“Elena” is currently in theaters in the US, the UK and Australia. A South American release is scheduled later this year. Next week: An in-depth interview with Venice’s Golden Lion winner Andrei Zvyagintsev.