Monday, September 14, 2015

Down 'n dirty Russian miserablism in Yury Bykov's ironic tale of corruption, THE FOOL

Is there anyone worth salvaging out of all of modern-day Russia? You may not ask that question literally (you're certainly not as judgmental as I), but the idea is bound to cross your mind as you watch aghast and with increasing intensity as Yury Bykov's movie, THE FOOL (Durak), unfurls. Mother Russia and its venal and corrupt small-town politicians, factotums and civil servants, along with friends and family are all present here, and what a group they make!

Writer/director Bykov (at right), whose third full-length film this is (after Live! and The Major) is quite attuned to the ironies large and small of life under the new Vlad the Impaler. Here, nobody does their job so long as they can pocket a bribe, steal, lie or otherwise circumvent work. Anyone who tells the truth or behaves in a manner we would have long ago called "correct" is simply laughed off the stage, ignored completely, or -- as in the case of our hero and titular "fool," Dima (played by Artyom Bystrov, below) -- treated to an array of belittling that slowly grows to humongous, even life-threatening proportions. No one -- men, women, children, family, friends, co-workers -- can be expected to act like a civilized human being. The Social Contract? Broken, stomped upon and the burned into ashes -- just like the records concerning certain shoddy and illegal transactions that we see the town's council members lighting afire late in this riveting film.

How all this comes to be depends on a screenplay that moves ahead almost like a heist movie, except that what is being stolen, rather than any kind of booty (cash, jewels, stocks and bonds) is life itself, in the form of the occupants of a rotting tenement building (referred to here in the subtitles as a "dormitory") that has suddenly burst an architectural gut (a huge crack goes from ground to near the roof on both sides) rendering the place not just unstable but sure to collapse -- and soon.

Something must be done immediately, so Dima alerts the powers-that-be, all of whom happen to be partying in honor of one of their own at a local restaurant. How the group, which contains just about everyone involved in this sorry situations -- politicians, inspectors, builders, investors -- responds to the problem involves a manner you might call predictable-times-ten. In fact, had Bykov simply goosed things a bit further, he might have come up with a grand farce about greed.

As it is, the filmmaker's skills turn the tale into a kind of suspense thriller in which our hero must battle bad guys (and gals) that include just about everyone else in the movie. Set this nearly anywhere except today's Russia, and we might have a believability problem. Not here. And the way in which Bykov exposes each character's venality and hypocrisy not only provides juicy, ironic fun, but also allows us to see how corruption can so easily spread.

All the roles are played to excellent effect by a cast well chosen for both appearance and skill. Especially good are Nataliya Surkova (above, right), who plays the political Queen Bee, a woman who dearly wants to do the right thing, so long as she comes out OK, and Boris Nevzorov (below, left) as the most complex and closest-to-the-vest of the sinners on view.

Bykov leaves his saddest, most effective ironies for the finish, where family comes to the fore, and then those folk who live in the building that must be evacuated. This is ugly, hateful stuff, and again, were it taking place in a western country, we'd probably call it gross overkill. But Russia? Maybe not. The country's filmmakers know their homeland pretty well, I would guess. (Remember last year's corruption-special and Oscar nominee, Leviathan? That movie wore its symbolism a little heavily, and also lasted twenty minutes longer than this one.) The Fool's moral stance makes Mr. Bykov some kind of hero, I would say. And very probably, as perceived by much of the Russian populace, some kind of fool, as well.

The movie, released theatrically by Olive Films and running exactly two hours (in the screener I viewed), opens this Wednesday, September 16, in New York City at Film Forum., after which it will open in Santa Barbara (one day only!), Miami, Chicago and St. Louis -- with perhaps more bookings to be announced down the road.  To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters shown, click here.

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