Back when I was first learning about the cinema of Russia and the Soviet Union, watching those early great films by pioneers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov at university, there was a term that came up occasionally known as the “Russian ending”, generally contrasted to the “Hollywood ending”. Well, this new film, which has won a fair few prizes at various film festivals (including London last month), is Russian. It could, of course, be set in any society where bureaucratic corruption festers, but it mines quite a rich seam of humour at the expense of its vodka-drinking local functionaries, while hardly covering modern Russian society in any particular glory. The humour is bleak, though, and the grand movement of the film is to slowly reveal the extent of the societal cogs (government, bureaucracy, religious orthodoxy) which are turning to crush its hero Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who has a younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a son from an earlier marriage, and who is being helped by a handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to pursue a case against the local mayor involving his isolated family home.
I’d stop short of calling it bleak, though it certainly isn’t bereft of such detail: the title recalls the foundational work of Western political governance by Thomas Hobbes, even as one suspects the film isn’t quite as enamoured of the role of government in lifting humanity from its “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” natural state. There’s also the remains of a literal leviathan in the film, which looms along this windswept coastline like the grand metaphor it is, tantalisingly introduced after a primal transgression pushes Kolya’s son to his limits. But the film finds more ground with its Biblical antecedents, such as the Book of Job, quoted at a drunken, enraged Kolya by a local priest. For all this, I’ve never viewed the so-called “Russian ending” as a necessarily bleak one. In a sense it brings things to the kind of conclusion grounded in comedy — in other words, one that finally levels its protagonists, like the punchline at the end of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” It’s just that while the film is running, some characters are more equal than others, and you can be sad, or angry, or just laugh. This film lets you do all those things.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev Андре́й Звя́гинцев; Writer Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin Олег Негин; Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman Михаи́л Кри́чман; Starring Aleksei Serebryakov Алексе́й Серебряко́в, Elena Lyadova Еле́на Ля́дова, Vladimir Vdovichenkov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.