Issue 47 (2015)
Iurii Bykov: The Fool (Durak, 2014)
reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2015
The Meeting of the Party Committee in Putin’s time
Iurii Bykov is a young, yet already renown filmmaker and scriptwriter. His second feature, The Major (Maior, 2013) had premiered at the International Critics’ Week in Cannes in 2013 and won the first prize at the Shanghai IFF in 2013, along with prizes for Best Directing and Best Music. The Fool, in turn, has already been awarded at Kinotavr in Sochi (2014) for Best Screenplay, written by Bykov, who also composed the music for the film; in addition Bykov received a diploma from Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars “For an uncompromised statement” in Sochi. The young actor Artem Bystrov, who played the “fool,” received the Best Actor award, and the took two further prizes by the youth and ecumenical juries at the International Film Festival in Locarno in 2014.
Critics and, even more enthusiastically, ordinary viewers—as numerous Internet forums testify—praised both of Bykov’s films for the unsparingly honest depiction of the all-penetrating corruption of contemporary (i.e., Putin’s) institutions of power, especially in Russia’s provincial regions. It looks like Bykov embodies the expectations for a new, socially concerned cinema, which conveys through comprehensible and recognizable images the most widely discussed ideas about contemporary Russian society. Both films depict the functioning of Putin’s system at an annoyingly meager level of life, represented through provincial authorities, cops, municipal services, etc. Both films are political in their outlooks, although political issues here seem to be diluted through a mundane routine. Both films unfold the collisions between moral values and a system, according to which the one who acts morally but goes against it has to be eliminated: quickly, effectively, prosaically, without anger or melodrama, by people who, at the first glance, are no villains at all.
In The Fool, much like in The Major, the action takes place in an unnamed but painfully recognizable Russian provincial mid-size town, with dark streets, overcrowded apartments and dorms, and stinking buildings with eternally broken sewage pipes; with rampant drunkenness, violence, poverty and depression. The protagonist, Dima Nikitin (Bystrov), studies at the local college to become a construction engineer, while at the same time working as a plumber. He has a wife (Moroz) and a small child; they all live in a standard, Soviet-era apartment with his parents. At the film’s beginning, during a family dinner, Dima’s mother (Samoshina), a retired doctor, starts blaming her husband and Dima’s father (Korshunov) for being “unfit for life,” which translates into an inability to steal and make a profit, like everybody else does. As illustration of this statement there follows a scene where father and son scare away a group of teenagers, who have broken a bench next to the entrance to the apartment block. Obviously they have broken this bench many times before, and Dima and his father have been desperately repairing it over and over again.
The bench episode, although dissociated from the main plotline, connects The Fool with Aleksandr Vampilov’s classical tragedy of Last Summer in Chulimsk (Proshlym letom v Chulimske, 1971): its protagonist, the fragile girl Valentina, keeps mending a fence that everybody has been breaking to make a shortcut. When asked how long she is planning to repeat this obviously senseless action, Valentina answers: until “they” learn not to break the fence. In Vampilov’s play, Valentina’s stoic patience inspires the investigating officer, Shamanov, who feels defeated by the all-powerful and corrupt Brezhnev-era system, to continue his struggle for justice—even if his renewed energy fails at saving Valentina from rape and violence.
Bykov inserts this “rhyme” at the beginning of his social drama for several reasons: his story is also about a desperate, yet morally dignified struggle against “them”—a strange union of the local rulers (all systemic thieves) on the one side, and the degraded and impoverished masses, epitomized by the dwellers of the factory dorm, on the other. No wonder the film opens with a brutal beating of wife and daughter by an alcoholic (Dmitrii Kulichikov, famous for his part of the corrupt cop Chakhlov in Hard-Hearted [Kremen’, 2007] by Aleksei Mizgirev). In the finale, the same character will be the first to hit the “fool” Dima for disturbing the lives of the doomed building’s inhabitants, whom Dima desperately tries to save from death. “They”still haven’t learnt not to break the fence, i.e. to live in a civilized way with respect to each other and to human life in general. This reads as a statement about the failure of the twenty-plus-year-olds attempts to reform Soviet society. The recent surge of an imperialist rhetoric and anti-western sentiment reminiscent of the Soviet era painfully resonates with Bykov’s diagnosis.
The plot of The Fool revolves around Dima’s discovery that a 37-year-old, nine-storey factory dormitory inhabited by 800 people is doomed to collapse within days or even hours. Shocked by this revelation he runs to the celebration of the Mayor’s jubilee. The Mayor, Nina Galaganova (Surkova), the powerful “Mom” of the whole town, promptly gathers a secret meeting with those who are responsible for the impending catastrophe: the city construction manager Fedotov (Boris Nevzorov, famous for his parts of devoted communist bosses), who has pocketed the funds for the building’s renovation; the chief of the fire department (Polukhin), who has been closing his eyes at the neglected state of the premises, as well as other functionaries of the town. In one scene, highly reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol’s play The Government Inspector (Revizor),it becomes clear that the looming disaster will expose the corrupt actions of current members of the municipal government, including the Mayor herself, who has to cut back half of the municipal budget to the region governor. At first Galaganova tries to prevent the catastrophe and relocate the inhabitants of the doomed building into a newly constructed apartment block. However, a rich and powerful local oligarch (Tsurilo), Galaganova’s patron and mentor (and probably a former lover), rules out such a decision, because he has already sold these new apartments and doesn’t want to risk his investments. Instead, he offers a plan, which is accomplished overnight: the building with the people inside is left to collapse. The scapegoats—the construction manager and the chief of the fire department—are executed by the local police (in secret, of course), as they are alleged to be fleeing from the town when the inevitable investigation begins. Along with these two bosses, Dima—as a dangerous witness—has to be killed, too, but in the last moment before the shooting begins, he is spared on condition that he leaves the town with his family immediately. Dima is about to fulfill his promise when he realizes that nothing is being done to save the people. He sends away his wife and son, and returns to the dorm, urging its inhabitants to leave to building before it collapses. The crowd at first follows him in a panic, but then—looking at the still intact building—the people turn their anger against the whistleblower. In the final shot, after a short but wild mob beating, we see Dima’s immobile body sprawled out in front of the building while the people return to their dilapidated dwellings.
The conflict unfolds not only in a social, but also in a moral dimension. The construction manager Fedotov asks Dima about the dorm’s inhabitants: “Why do you care about them? They are human trash!”—“Different people live here and they are all living people,” responds Dima. An alcoholic from the dorm confronts Dima with the same question, and again he hears the response about living human beings. A similar dialogue occurs even between Dima and his wife, when he tells her that he is going to leave her and their son, and instead of fleeing the town he will stay behind to save the people. “They are nothing to us,” argues his wife. “It’s because people are nothing to other people that nothing changes here,” retorts Dima. When the same people, whose right to live Dima defends with heroic desperation, nonchalantly kill him, it seems that Dima’s opponents were correct, but this provocation cannot deceive anyone: it is crystal clear who is wrong in this conflict.
Obviously, Dima’s heroic stand is based on his unshaken faith in the value of any human life. This faith is shared neither by the bosses nor by the people, whom Dima desperately tries to save. Dima is the “fool,” or even the “holy fool” (iurodivyi), as the furious wife labels him, since he is indeed the last humanist, while—as the film demonstrates with the poster-like lucidity—post-Soviet individualism has led to a dog-eat-dog mentality that unites the authorities with society’s bottom feeders.
Therefore Bykov delivers a clear and solid social statement in the form of a dynamic and well-performed movie. Most importantly, The Fool’s message is transparent not only to savvy film connoisseurs or Russian viewers and experts familiar with post-Soviet realia, but to anybody who has been reading about Russia in Western newspapers. Consider, for example, the opinion of Peter Debruge (2014),chief international critic for Variety:
Frank Capra would have approved of The Fool, a forceful Russian drama in which a lone plumber stands up to a corrupt system on behalf of the people living in a squalid apartment building. With giant cracks running from the foundation to the roof, the crumbling structure could be a metaphor for the country itself, insinuating that decades of embezzling and all-around mismanagement have left things in a precarious state. After playing Cannes with his previous feature, The Major, writer-director Yury Bykov delivers another major work, this one even more deserving of international attention, in festivals and commercial venues.
My question is: what is new about The Fool? Is there anything that this film uncovers? Any new perspective? Does it defamiliarize the well-known? Does it discover any new tropes, new characters, or new ideas? The corruption and dilapidation of provincial life has become a trademark of many recent films, from Mizgirev’s Hard-Hearted to the pitch-black My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010) by Sergei Loznitsa. Similarly, the heroic story of a whistleblower is a common trope exploited in numerous American television movies. Situated between the Russian “new quiet cinema” style and American television tropes, The Fool, nevertheless, mostly resonates with the some other aesthetic source. Bykov’s corrupt bosses passionately accuse one another and, in the same conversation, deliver moralizing judgments about their colleagues’ crimes and cynically admit their own guilt. They are reminiscent of late Soviet films from the perestroika period, which, in turn, draw on Aleksandr Gel’man’s plays and films. Among the latter, The Meeting of the Party Committee (Zasedanie partkoma, 1977, based on the Moscow Arts Theater’s production) is eponymous with this genre. In a way, The Fool is Gel’man’s The Meeting of the Party Committee raised to a new level, but with the same participants. The tragic opposition between an honest idealist and both the corrupt authorities and the degraded masses recalls the familiar conflicts of numerous novels and films created by the 1960s’ generation. Aleksei German’s Hard to Be A God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013), based on the Strugatsky brothers’ cult novel, is just one recent example.
All these models serve as foundation for the success of Iurii Bykov’s films: each viewer, no matter how sophisticated s/he is, will find something familiar—and therefore comforting—in The Fool. Certainly, recognition is a necessary part of any aesthetic perception. However, when recognition is not coupled with estrangement, let alone with the discovery of something new, the outcome is not a work of art, but a commodity. Well-done, well-packed, and digestible, but still a commodity. Perhaps today, when the political discourse has displaced all other discourses in Russia, a critically charged commodity like The Fool may be more efficient than a complex film such as My Joy or Andrei Zviaginstev’s Leviathan (2014). Nevertheless, there should be clarity regarding the reasons for this efficiency.
U of Colorado at Boulder
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Peter Debruge. 2014. “Film Review: ‘The Fool’,” Variety 9 August.
The Fool, Russia, 2014
Color, 110 min., 1:1.85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director and Scriptwriter Iurii Bykov
DoP Kirill Klepalov
Production Design Stanislav Novak
Editing Iurii Bykov
Cast: Artem Bystrov, Dar’ia Moroz, Vladimir Il’in, Natal’ia Surkova, Iurii Tsurilo, Boris Nevzorov, Kirill Polukhin, Maksim Pinsker, Sergei Artsibashev, Denis Shvedov, Liubov’ Rudenko, Petr Barancheev, Irina Nizina
Producers Aleksei Uchitel, Kira Saksaganskaia
Production ROCK Company
Iurii Bykov: The Fool (Durak, 2014)
reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2015