Monday, March 16, 2015

ND/NF ’15: The Fool

The assassination of Boris Nemtsov is yet another example of how tragedy continues to mysteriously befall critics of the Putin regime. Although Putin’s name is never mentioned in Yuriy Bykov’s latest film, his friends should keep a close eye on him. Bykov unambiguously indicts the corruption and lawlessness of Putin’s Russia, but he goes even further than Andrey Zvyagintev’s Leviathan, condemning the complacency and complicity of the average citizenry that allows such abuses to continue unchecked. Viewers will find Bykov’s The Fool (trailer here) is a bitter cocktail with a powerful kick when it screens during the 2015 edition of New Directors/New Films.

Dima Nikitin is a plumber, but he is studying structural engineering in hopes of securing a promotion in the municipal works department. His wife finds his efforts ridiculously naïve, because everyone knows such matters are arranged through pay-offs. Yet, he continues nonetheless. Called to cover for a drunken worker in a dilapidated housing project just outside his district, Nikitin has the training to recognize the tenement is on the verge of collapse. There is a huge fissure running up on side of the listing building on down the other. The foundation is literally crumbling and the ground has shifted beneath it. Concerned for the fate of the 820 residents (and what unsavory tenants they are), Nikitin takes the matter directly to the civic council, which has conveniently assembled to celebrate the birthday of corrupt Mayor Nina Galaganova.

Of course, nobody wants to hear what Nikitin has to say. Where did all the money earmarked for the complex’s maintenance go? After the mayor got her cut, it paid for a lovely house for the daughter of public housing manager Fedotov, as well as an apartment in Moscow for his thuggish son. Nevertheless, when Nikitin takes Fedotov and the fire chief out to the building, they are forced to acknowledge the urgency of the situation. The politically inexperienced Nikitin takes Galaganova at her word when she agrees to evacuate the building, but her shady advisors have different ideas.

Despite its explicit commentary on Putin’s Russia, The Fool works as a ticking clock thriller on two levels. We experience the suspense of whether Nikitin and his reluctant allies be able to start the evacuation before it is too late, while simultaneously worrying he will go the way of Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya for his efforts. This being Russia, it is hardly spoilerish to say the answer will be blackly ironic.

Due to its dourly naturalistic vibe, the grit and depth of the performances in The Fool sort of sneak up on the audience, but their resonance lingers. Artyom Bystrov elevates Nikitin far beyond a workaday everyman or symbolic victim. He is an anguished and self-aware Quixotic figure. Likewise, Boris Nevzorov and Kirill Polukhin are absolutely riveting as the knowingly compromised Fedotov and the fire chief. Alexander Korshunov adds tragic heft as Nikitin’s futilely principled father, the block from which he was chipped, but Olga Samoshina and Darya Moroz are rather one-dimensional as his relentlessly shrewish mother and under-developed wife.

Perhaps Bykov gives us a tad too much of Nikitin’s family drama, but his long dark night of soul is completely engrossing and profoundly alarming. Bykov lets nobody off the hook, least of all the mean, petty, loutish, and entitled tenants Nikitin is trying to save. Clearly, they are almost as much of the problem as Galaganova, but that is hardly the sort of message the state-controlled Russian media is likely to trumpet. Very highly recommended, The Fool screens this Thursday (3/19) at MoMA and Saturday (3/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s ND/NF.