It only seems fitting that my follow-up to my “Spotlight On” feature segment on Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev should be his latest film. A film as I mentioned in the previous article, that garnered some of Zvyaginstev’s best reviews to date worldwide. Taking home a plethora of different awards at many of this past year’s festivals. Including 1 win (Best Screenplay) and 1 Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, as well as being a Golden Globe winner here stateside and nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. I spent most of the weekend revisiting some of Zvyaginstev’s previous work – 2007’s lofty and ambitious “The Banishment” as well as 2011’s “Elena” so I could hopefully gain a clearer understanding of what exactly this director is trying to achieve. What I came up with is that he seems to be Russia’s counterpart or distant cousin to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s work pre-“Birdman”. Zvyaginstev’s films all seem to have a common thread that he likes to explore which I interpret to be how we deal with life’s many challenges and adversities, creating bleak dramas with an underlying element of social realism to them. However he, just as much as any other director I can think of at the moment, makes tepidly paced films which take their time to unravel that place much more of an emphasis on establishing setting and the characters that are contained within them than any other elements. His films are always weighty and dense, and are more in tune with what you make of them than what he wants you to make of them. This was maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date, and surprisingly his most accessible one, tying in themes of family, society, fate, power, and corruption that have become almost trademark in pretty much all his films so far to date.
The film opens with a series of gorgeous shots on the Russian coastal countryside that to me looked like what I imagine a country like Iceland to look like. Sparse, dreary, cold, and isolated, but also very beautiful. The story revolves around its protagonist, Kolya, and the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself in as the town mayor, Vadim, is going through the legal process of taking over Kolya’s property and abuses of his position of power to unfairly take it out from under him to build one of those new strip malls. But Kolya refuses to put a price tag on his beautiful coastal property, as both he and his family, as well as the families of both his father and grandfather have lived in it for generations it having being built more than half a century ago. His situation is further complicated by his increasingly distant and seemingly unhappy wife, Lilia, and troublesome teenage boy Roma. Kolya is a strong man though with high moral values and seems to juggle both his family situation and the process of his house being repossessed rather well. And even enlists the help of an old military friend of his now turned lawyer, Dmitri, who’s a prominent lawyer from Moscow. Kolya starts to build a case against the lecherous slime ball mayor Vadim citing violations of civil liberties and direct violations of the law. Though once a secret is revealed involving both his lawyer friend Dmitri and his estranged wife Lilia, things start to crumble and take a turn for the worse for Kolya’s situation, and he is confronted with challenges and moral dilemmas involving his family that he so desperately tries to hold onto as well as his property at whatever cost and whatever means necessary which, as the film ensues, his efforts begin to grow more and more increasingly dire and hopeless. Culminating into a tale of almost Greek tragedy-like proportions.
Like many of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s previous work before “Birdman” like “21 Grams”, “Babel”, and “Biutiful”, Zvyaginstev spins us another bleak, tragic family tale that mostly works on a lot of levels and not so much on others. Since I did “like” the film but can’t say I necessarily found it “enjoyable” (similar to my feelings after having watched “Foxcatcher”). I found myself marveling more in its technical achievements than I think I did most anything else. The film is exquisitely shot with much credit due to its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on every single Zvyaginstev film to date and captures some amazing back drops and portraits of rich symbolism. The acting felt real and authentic, despite many of the characters not feeling all that particularly likeable (to say Zvyaginstev has a pessimistic world view would be the understatement of the year). All of the characters are flawed in some shape or form. Alcoholism being an ongoing motif within the film with almost every character trying to hide their pain and sadness behind a vodka bottle. The story and narrative arch was also engaging and well crafted. With fully developed written characters and believable situations in which they find themselves in. My very few minor complaints of the film is that like the aforementioned “Foxcatcher”, it felt like a bit of an endurance test at a somewhat tedious 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. I thought some of it could have been trimmed down slightly and it would have still have had the same desired effect. Also, despite the very strong performances from each of its actors, I found the material to be a bit too cold and I had some degree of difficulty getting emotionally involved with any of its characters. The sole exception for that of maybe the central character Kolya, who you almost have to sympathize with as his world gets turned upside down and his situation is so tragic that as a human being you only can have empathy for him. But even despite those few criticisms of the piece, this was yet another lofty, rather ambitious, and fine example of the types of social dramas that seem to be coming out of this part of the world right now. Zvyaginstev gives us yet another rich story of people on the verge of desperation. I have a feeling this is going to be too bleak and too depressing for most, but it contains a deeply rich, personal, and moving story, that I for one am really glad I saw and will continue to see any Zvyaginstev film that he does from this point forward for the rest of his career. My only hope is that next time he will present us with something that is a little more hopeful and not as engulfed in sadness and tragedy.