TrustMovies wouldn't think of comparing a nearly two-and-one-half-hour shortlist nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Russia with a tiny little 78-minute American documentary about a high school in the town of Mentor, Ohio. But since both films were caught by me in the same week, and both deal heavily with bullying -- LEVIATHAN by the powers-that-be in a Russian coastal town, MENTOR by the entitled students of an upper-middle-class Ohio high school, abetted by the school's administration and further up the line by the state itself -- I can't help but want to cover these two interesting movies together.
Oleg Negin) and director Andrey Zvyagintsev (shown at right) had decided to make a documentary film rather than the narrative he's created in Leviathan (and I am certain he could have, as more than enough incidents worth documenting exist in today's Russia), he would probably be in prison or dead just now, rather than tub-thumping the Oscar and Golden Globe circuits. So he chose, rather sensibly, to create a fictional tale of some lovely seaside property, coveted by the Mayor of the town, who uses eminent domain and his many lackeys (he seems to be in league with just about everybody we meet, from judges to churchmen to police) to wrest control of said property from its rightful owner, while paying him a pittance rather than market value.
What makes this film and its documenting so appalling is that while the bullying was apparent to the student body and to many of the teachers and the administration, nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- was done by those in charge of the school to prevent it. Mentor, by the way, is a much stronger film than the more-talked-about but all-over-the-place Bully.
Mentor -- from Garden Thieves Pictures and running 78 minutes -- was released to DVD last week, and can also now be seen via Amazon Instant Video, for sale or rental, and on SnagFilms and iTunes.
Roman Madyanov, shown above) might have played football for and then graduated from Mentor High School, taking with him a slew of his pals and gals to fill various slots on his town's payroll. But Leviathan takes place in a coastal corner of modern Russia, from which we expect little but corruption and drunkenness. The film delivers both --
Elena, The Return) understands how to weave corruption, bullying, love, infidelity, parenting, some deep psychological problems and a good dose of metaphor and symbolism into his mix and keep us glued to the screen. He refuses to explain everything, however, or even to allow us to know with any certainty what has happened at some major moments.
A Good Day to Die Hard, an excellent documentary such as Khodorkovsky, or Leviathan, we've seen it and seen it and seen it all again.
Aleksey Serebryakov is terrific as our put-upon hero, with so many problems of his own (he's a hot-headed drunk) that he barely needs this additional one. Ditto Elena Lyadova as his spouse, a second wife unloved by the family's problemed son, a sad disturbed boy given unsettling resonance by young actor, Sergueï Pokhodaev.
Vladimir Vdovichenkov, "Dimi" proves a wild card in more ways than one. We meet this family's friends and co-workers, the religious crew, judges, police and more. And by the end of this often wonderful and always wearying movie, you may want to shrug and paraphrase those immortal, final words of the popular Polanski classic:
"Forget it, Jake. It's modern Russia."
Sony Pictures Classics, in Russian with English subtitles, and running 140 minutes, opens tomorrow, December 25, in New York City at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. In the Los Angeles area, look for it on Wednesday, December 31, at Laemmle's Royal, and then on January 9 at the Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5. The movie will eventually play the limited release/arthouse circuit across the country.
TrustMovies had a very quick telephone chat with filmmaker Alix Lambert, shown below, on Christmas Eve, just to ask a few question about her oh-so-necessary documentary, Mentor. My questions/comments appear in boldface, while Ms Lambert's answers are in standard type.
TM: I have to say that I liked your film even better than Bully, about which, only two years later, I can barely remember most of the specifics. Your film sticks so closely to the two families and what happened to them and builds its case against the school very well.
Alix Lambert: Thank you.
AL: (she laughs) I would love to know the answer to that. When you make smaller independent films, you have a harder time because of funding. Making it is one thing, but getting it out there can be really frustrating. You finally finish it, you feel proud of it, and then it’s…. You just want to get it out to the world so that it can be used in a way that is educational.
TM: Did Ohio/Mentor try to sink it?
AL: I don’t know about sinking the film. They certainly have been hostile toward me. I received a lot of threatening messages. But I have no reason to think that they are trying to sink it. On the other hand, I have also gotten a lot of emails from people who are really appreciative of the film but must remain anonymous because of their connections to the school or community.
TM: Your film mentions five suicides but you cover in depth only two of these. Did you try to reach or include the other families in your film?
AL: I did contact other families but there were things that influenced my final decision to go with only the two. These were the two families that brought a lawsuit, so it was clear that they wanted their stories to be public and to be talked about. I always feel that one must err on the side of caution -- and not put someone through something when they’ve already been through something so horrible.
You want to make sure your people really want to participate. Also, the more you kind of spread things out among a lot of different people, you water them down. It's true that in The Mark of Cain you see many, many people. But in this one I am focusing on just two families. And because these other families were not sure they wanted to go public, I didn’t want to press them.
TM: Anything you want to say that you aren’t usually asked by journalists?
AL: Hmmm... (She thinks) Well, just to say that what I would really like is to see people treat each other more kindly.
A little empathy can go a long way.