F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 25, 2015)

25 06 2015

The ReturnI abide by many mantras, but one I use often in assessing and criticizing movies is, “Never judge a director by their debut film.”  In the case of Andrey Zvyagintsev, however, such would actually be acceptable.  His first feature, 2004’s “The Return,” shows a remarkable command of suspense and tone that results in a gripping experience.

To be clear, “The Return” is not my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” simply because I am grading Zvyagintsev on a curve.  Regardless of whether this were a director’s first or fifteenth film, I still would have been bowled over by its power.  But anyone who saw this on the festival circuit a decade ago should have easily been able to foresee Zvyagintsev’s Oscar nomination for “Leviathan” last year.

Unlike his film recognized by the Academy, however, “The Return” focuses smaller scale rather than on the state of the entire Russian nation.  Zvyagintsev primarily follows three characters over the course of the film: baby-faced Ivan, his older teen brother Andrei, and their estranged father Otets.  After a twelve year absence, the patriarch mysteriously returns home to command his old family, and he does so with an iron fist.

Tensions already run high between Ivan and Andrei, as shown by an opening scene where the eldest sibling allows a bully to heap masses of humiliation on his petrified brother.  Otets’ arrival simply lights the long fuse to the powder keg of familial tensions.  But Zvyagintsev refuses to let us see the full length, thus keeping us in stomach-clenched agony watching their male bonding trip slowly go south.  Animosity over his absence provides many a heated debate, as does Otets’ favoritism of Andrei and patronization towards Ivan.

The default reaction of the kids, in response to the feuding with their father, is to shut down entirely and offer nothing but a mopey, downcast frown.  Zvyagintsev never tries to psychoanalyze them in “The Return.”  He simply lets us see how each instance of frustration incrementally sets the wheels of chaos in motion.  From our distance, we can only watch in anger, helpless to stop what we know is coming.  Yet anyone paying attention will be hard-pressed to turn their eyes away…

REVIEW: Leviathan (2014)

25 12 2014

LeviathanIn the past few years, both the Coen Brothers in “A Serious Man” and Terence Malick in “The Tree of Life” have explored the perpetually head-scratcher of a Biblical story that is Job.  The perceived human disparity between is and ought as well as the unfathomable question of why bad things happen to seemingly good people is always relevant.  These American directors, to varying degrees of success, managed to pose the questions raised by Job without explicitly mentioning it to the audience.

Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev displays no such reticence in his film “Leviathan.”  His central character Kolya, a provincial man facing a potentially unlawful government seizure of his coastal property, is explicitly told within the film itself to reconsider his woes in light of Job’s struggles.  The complete lack of subtlety denies some of the joys of discovery for the viewer, yet it does little to detract from this astute depiction of contemporary Russia.

Zvyagintsev sets his sights big with a clear allegory for the state of the nation.  The plain, unassuming Kolya is the Russian everyman whose home and town already appear to be in a state of disrepair.  His nemesis is a corrupt civil servant, the mayor Vadim, who wishes to have the property for a “communications center.”

As if his position alone did not indicate a reference to Russia’s president, the swaggering, oafish bully is a visible Putin acolyte.  A picture of the country’s leader hangs in his office, and Vadim has, whether consciously or subconsciously, even modeled his hairstyle after Putin.  The deck seems stacked against Kolya from the very beginning as Vadim has enormous power to wield and support from the Russian religious establishment.

“Leviathan” makes quite the condemnation of these large societal forces and their perverse collusion, but Zvyagintsev never loses sight of the human collateral damage taken by the conjoined church-state beast.  While the first portion of the film is rather heavy on dialogue and plot development, the concluding sections are more ambient and brooding.  Everyday torments shine a powerful light on existential tussles, a powerful connection that resonates tremendously.  B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 19, 2014)

19 12 2014

ElenaI have no idea how he does it, but Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev has a remarkable talent for making his films feel like modern-day parables.  His work on “Elena,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” achieves this tenor of storytelling through one heck of a balancing act.

The film is pared down to an almost elemental struggle without ever being dumbed down.  His visual style takes a heavy cue from naturalism, portraying much of the dreary minutiae that occupies most of our lives, yet “Elena” still feels compelling nonetheless.  Zvyagintsev provides satisfying drama that never dips into the realm of sensationalism.

“Elena” chronicles a brief period in the life of its titular character, a former nurse who has married up to wealthy Moscow businessman Vladimir.  If Russia has something equivalent to Social Security, they are at about that age.  So, naturally, the subject of settling his estate is a rather pressing concern.

Elena is hardly a gold digger, although she does have an interest in ensuring a significant stake.  Her grown son cannot provide for his own family, so he constantly leans on his mother for financial support.  Vladimir has grown tired of their inability to become self-sufficient, and he firmly withholds tuition funds for Elena’s grandson that would keep him out of the military.  To counter, Elena is also quick to remind him that she is a better investment than his thankless, prodigal daughter Katerina.

What ensues in “Elena” is a fascinating look at the lengths to which people will go in order to secure their future.  Every choice and each word are up for debate as to their correctness.  Zvyagintsev also astutely builds in the confounding factor of class relations to the film, adding an extra layer of complexity into a film that already boasts an intricate simplicity.  While very little may happen in regards to events, “Elena” feels like a more full viewing experience than most films these days.