Evolving Russia Finds a Recorder of Its Moment
EVER since he won the grand prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival for his stunning film debut, The Return, an allegorical tale of father-son relations tinged with mystery, Andrei Zvyagintsev has been hailed as the heir to the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.
Now with Elena, his taut and starkly realistic third film that is also a mystical parable, Mr. Zvyagintsev is being described as a seer of the social and spiritual divides in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia.
Shot in 2010 and released here last fall, Elena seemed to capture the mood that led to mass protests against Mr. Putin and Russia’s entrenched bureaucrats after charges of widespread electoral fraud in December’s parliamentary elections.
"We all are rotten seeds", says the most cynical character in Elena, Katerina, who is paradoxically the only character honest with herself and others and who shows glimmers of redemption.
"Moral questions are being set aside", Mr. Zvyagintsev said in an interview last month in his sleek office in central Moscow, reflecting on Russia and accusations by critics, intellectuals and general audiences that his film defames Russians by portraying them in a negative light. "New values are being articulated".
"One has to be blind not to see this", he said.
Mr. Zvyagintsev is wary of directly criticizing Mr. Putin, the newly re-elected president, or those who supported him on the way to the March 4 vote. But the filmmaker did attend an anti-Putin rally in December and talked about it on an opposition television channel. And the sense that he views life — and the Russian condition — as a series of moral challenges is apparent in his films and in conversation.
"A person who is in art can speak of politics through art", he said.
Elena, shown as part of the Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, was honored with a special jury prize there, and Mr. Zvyagintsev took home the best director award at the Nika film awards in Russia last month. But Elena was pushed out of contention last year for Russia’s Oscar entry for best foreign-language film in place of Citadel, the final installment of a trilogy about the Stalin era and World War II. Citadel was directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who presides like a czar over Russia’s film world.
Americans can see what the controversy was about when Elena has its premiere in the United States on Wednesday at Film Forum. BAMcinématek will offer a sneak preview on Monday as part of its Next Director series. Also screening as part of the series are Apocryphya, Mr. Zvyagintsev’s entry in the anthology film New York, I Love You, which was not included in its theatrical release; The Banishment, his 2007 film that was not released in the United States; and The Return.
Elena is set unmistakably in today’s Moscow. The tacky talk shows and dating games that fill TV screens here are a recurrent background.
On the surface the socioeconomic lines could not be more clearly drawn: the film cuts between Moscow’s most elite neighborhood, near the Kremlin, and the industrial sprawl and crumbling Soviet-era housing on its outskirts, where credit cards are still regarded as something alien.
Elena — in her 50s, dutiful and taciturn — lives with her older, much richer husband, who shows her little affection but appears to depend on her. They are played by the stately Nadezhda Markina and Andrei Smirnov, veteran Russian actors, and their relationship speaks volumes about alienation, exploitation and attraction.
Elena’s sole purpose in life, one that represents many Russian women, is to support her adult son, Sergey. Unemployed, with a family that includes a teenager who needs to be bought out of impending military service, he lives off his mother with no qualms. Her husband, Vladimir, also supports his own wayward daughter, Katerina, from a previous marriage. But once he insists that Elena’s family — and especially her son — take responsibility for their lives, the long-suffering and religious Elena snaps.
Mr. Zvyagintsev is a youthful-looking 48, a fashionably dressed and soft-spoken father of four. But he links his Siberian background and impoverished days as a young actor in Moscow to the harsher realities of Russian life today, and he chafes at suggestions that the portrayal of Elena’s poor relations is exaggerated and insulting.
"When people say this is a caricature, I say this is me", he said. "We didn’t have to go to Biryulyovo" — a reference to a working-class neighborhood in the film — "to study people there. It’s me and my friends. Maybe I’m not so close to oligarchs".
Elena is permeated with the sense that people can live side by side for years and be divided. Mr. Zvyagintsev said the idea of overriding disconnection between people was the basis of his original vision for the film in 2009. It began as a script by Mr. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin for a British producer who wanted an international lineup to make films revolving around the idea of apocalypse. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s contribution was supposed to be in English, with characters named Helen and Richard.
The apocalypse project fell through, and Mr. Zvyagintsev translated the script to a Russian setting. Russian reviewers last fall noted that he had conveyed the sense of impending doom in Russia — "moral catastrophe" as he describes it — but the film, with no direct political references, cleared the censors on Rossiya, one of two main state television channels, and was broadcast during prime time last November. But in theatrical release in Russia, where American blockbusters dominate, Elena pulled in just over 100,000 viewers, fewer than it drew in France.
In late April, at a Moscow art gallery holding an exhibition about Tarkovsky, Mr. Zvyagintsev presented his favorite Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev, about the Russian religious iconographer. Amid depictions of feudal Russia, it examined the role of the artist and the meaning of faith.
Mr. Zvyagintsev deflected accusations that he imitates Tarkovsky, saying that it was impossible not to be inspired by him. The next day, Rublev still on his mind, Mr. Zvyagintsev mused about Russia. "We are a feudal society", he said, "with a slavish mentality. I don’t think we can ever change this until our entire world order changes. We need to have many new generations born in freedom".
"New York Times"