Andrej Zvjagintsev/ Zvyagintsev

7.2 The Return (2003)
6.5 The Banishment (2007)
7.0 Elena (2011)
7.3 Leviathan (2014)
7.2 Loveless (2017)

Andrej Zvjagintsev (Russia, 1964) debuted with Vozvrashcheniye/ The Return (2003), a cryptic, minimalist thriller and domestic drama, which began his collaboration with cinematographer Mikhail Krichman. Children climb a tower by a lake and challenge each other at diving from the top. The youngest, Vanya, can't jump and can't climb down either. Terrified, he spend hours freezing half-naked on the tower. His mom come to rescue him. The other kids call him a coward. When his own older brother Andrei does so, Vanya attacks him. They fight all the way home and they are surprised to find that their father is there, asleep. They have to look at old photos to believe that the man is really their father because they grew up without him for twelve years. When the father wakes up, he coldly sits at the table and eats as if nothing special was going on. The children are excited. The father promises to take them on a fishing trip. Along the way he never smiles at them nor does it provide explanations for what he does. When the children are attacked by two thugs, the father continues indifferent his phone call. Then he gets in the car and chases one of the thieves, takes him back and asks Andrei to beat him up, but Andrei doesn't want to. The father lets the thug go and even gives him some money. Then he puts the kids on a bus back home, claiming that he has some important business to tend to. The kids are waiting disappointed in the bus when he comes back and tells them that they can spend three days together before he heads off for this mysterious business. The kids are hesitant because their mother expects them back in one day, not three, but then they accept. They watch as their father carries out a mysterious transaction with another man. They camp by the lake. At night Vanya tells Andrei that he is scared of their father and wants to go home. When the father suddenly decides to move camp, Vanya complains that he had just started fishing, and his father unceremoniously dumps him in the middle of nowhere. The father only returns when it starts raining. Vanya's clothes are completely soaked in rain. Vanya is angry and yells at his father. When the car gets stuck in mud, the father and the children have to work together under heavy rain to push it. Vanya, tired of adventure, still wants to go home, but Andrei is getting excited that he is being treated like an adult. They stop at a ghost town on the way to an island, and prepare a boat to sail. When they reach the remote island, Vanya, still hostile and suspicious, steals his father's knife. The father takes them to an observation tower. Vanya, still scared of heights, doesn't climb it. Andrei, instead, follows his father everywhere. Vanya keeps antagonizing his father. Given the boat for an hour, the kids find an abandoned ship, get a fish, and return several hours later. The father loses his temper and slaps Andrei repeatedly. To defend his brother, Vanya pulls out the knife and threatens his father but then runs away in the forest. The father runs after him but Vanya manages to reach the watchtower and climbs it to the top, threatening to jump. His father tries to prevent this and accidentally falls to his death. The children build a raft to carry the body across the forest, and then pull the body to the boat, an operation that takes the whole night. Then they row back to the car. When they reach the car, they are so exhausted that they let the boat drift away and watch it sink in the lake, with their father's body. They drive back home empty handed. We are not told what their father's intentions were, where he had been and where he was going next.

Izgnanie/ The Banishment (2007) is a loose adaptation of William Saroyan's "The Laughing Matter" (1953).

Elena (2011) is a cold rational version of Hollywood's film noir recast in a world in which crime does pay. Unlike the poor granma, who is happy to be a housewife and to serve and obey her husband, the rich spoiled daughter has broken all the rules of what a good woman is supposed to do, and is about to be rewarded. The good housewife has no choice but to take justice into her hands. By the end it does feel like survival of the fittest: everybody is selfish and the old ones only care for her/his own genes.

Long shots explore a luxury apartment. The aging Elena is remarried to the wealthy and equally old Vladimir. They both have trouble with their children from previous marriages. Her son Sergej has a family, but he is chronically unemployed and needs money to send his teenage son Sasha to college. Elena begs Vladimir to pay the money. Vladimir is reluctant because Sergei still owes him money, and would rather see Sasha join the army. Vladimir's daughter Katya, on the other hand, enjoys the nice life. One day Vladimir has a heart attack. He jokes that he met Elena when she was a nurse and he was a patient with peritonitis. Elena calls Katya and has a private chat with her. Katya is arrogant and offensive. She does not hesitate to admit that she cares zero about her father. Then she confronts her father at the hospital, boasts about her hedonistic lifestyle, paid by her father, and holds against him that he mostly cared for his money not for his family. She gives him some of her materialistic philosophy, and he is amused. She even admits that she's there only for the money that he gives her. Elena, meanwhile, is lighting a candle in a church, asking the saint to restore Vladimir to good health, and then she visits her son's family again, playing with the second grandson, a little baby. Released from the hospital, Vladimir tells Elena that he has decided to write a will: he bequeaths everything to his daughter and leaves Elena with a monthly stipend. Furthermore, he has decided not to help Sasha. Elena pretends to behave like the devout housewife she has always been but instead prepares a deadly cocktail of drugs. After he dies, she carefully removes any evidence of the crime, and then makes it look like he died while having sex. At the funeral Katya looks sincerely sorry, while Elena cries crocodile tears. The attorney splits the estate equally between daughter and wife. Elena has already taken all the money from the safe and later takes it to his son. Sergey's family celebrates that Sasha will be able to go to college. Sergey has a surprise for Elena too: his wife is pregnant for the third time. The light goes off and Elena almost faints. Sasha goes out drinking with his buddies, who behave like arrogant thugs. They attack other kids and Sasha is beaten. The whole family moves into Vladimir's apartment.

Leviathan (2014) is a bleak melodrama of Kafka-esque alienation imbued with Chekhov's pathos and ironically set in an elegiac landscape.

In a provincial town far from the capital, two men leave from a hotel room. Stopped by a police officer and family friend, Pasha, who needs the usual favor, they laugh at the idea that there could be such a thing as an honest cop. One of them is Kolya, owner of a local house and business. At home his child Roma is child eagerly for his retun and insulting his step-mother Lilya. friend comes looking for Kolya while Kolya taking Roma to school fixing truck he can't because court hearing Ivan The other adult is Kolya's old friend from the army, Dmitri, now an attorney in the capital. He has come to help Kolya with a difficult case: the town's mayor has decided to take his place and has forged papers and bribes courts. The attorney advises Kolya that the only way to win is to blackmail the mayor with compromising information: the mayor, Vadim, seems to have committed all sorts of crimes. As expected, the court judges in favor of Vadim. This corrupt mayor, Vadim, dines with the head of the local church, who reminds him of God's power but basically accepts Vadim's crimes. Kolya at home is drunk and furious: his whole life "is" the place that Vadim has obtained illegally. At night Vadim comes, also drunk, demanding that they move out immediately. Dmitri, calm and confident, asks for a person-to-person meeting at his office. Dmitri is up all night working on the legal merit of their case, and the following day tries to file a complaint, except that neither the police nor the court accepts it. They even refuse to issue a certificate of refusal. Kolya loses his temper and is jailed. Menawhile, Lilya is asking their family friends, Pasha and his wife, to get Kolya released. Then Lilya inspects the place that they will have to move into once they are evicted from their home, and gets really depressed seeing how ugly and run-down it is. Dmitri visits Vadim in his office and blackmails him: he has compiled a file that reveals how Vadim builds up his power. Vadim tells him that he can't let go of the house but they agree on a large sum as compensation. Dmitri and Lilya are actually lovers and they sleep together while Kolya is being released from jail. Vadim is truly scared, and tells his three closest associates (two women and one man) that if he goes down they will go down with him. He unleashes them after the young city attorney. Kolya and Dmitri attend a picnic to celebrate the truck driver's birthday with Pasha the cop. They all drive to a remote lake and play with guns (the targets are portraits of former Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev). Suddenly Pasha's children tell the others that Dmitri is "suffocating" Lilya and the adults understand what is going on behind Kolya's back. We don't see the fight but we see Lilya and Dmitri driving back in a car, with bruises on their faces. At the hotel Lilya asks Dmitri whether he believes in God, the same question that the corrupt mayor asks him, and he answers annoyed that he only believes in facts. Pasha and his wife are keeping Kolya company. They are all drunk. When they hear Lilya's car, the wife sends Pasha away (he is drunk but claims to be able to drive because he is a traffic cop). Instead of apologizing Lilya asks Kolya whether he wants a child. The following morning she is back to her job, cleaning fish in a nearby village that she reaches by bus. Meanwhile, the mayor kidnaps Dmitri the lawyer and shows him how much he cares about his blackmail. He and his thugs take him to a remote place and fake an execution, and then just dump him there. Dmitri gets the message and leaves town. When she gets home from work, Kolya wants her madly and they make love in the basement. Roma sees them and runs away disgusted, stopping in front of the skeleton of a whale to cry alone. Back home he screams like a maniac against his mother and his father can't calm him down. Kolya has forgiven her, but Roma hasn't. She gets up at night, walks to the sea and jumps to her death. When the body is found several days later, Kolya drinks vodka asks God why this is happening to him. At the grocery store Kolya runs into the priest, Vasily, unaware that the priest is in cahoots with the mayor. Kolya scorns his God, but the priest replies with the story of Job, who resigned himself to his fate.
Pasha thinks that Kolya is capable of having killed his wife. The police arrest Kolya for the murder of his wife. They tell him that Pasha and his wife Angela have testified that he threatened to kill his wife and her lover. They tell him that Lilya was raped and murdered, and that they found the weapon (a hammer) in his house. The police advise him to sign a confession that would reduce his sentence. Instead he makes the mistake of insisting on his innocence. When he is taken to jail, he begs the escorting officer to take care of his son. The officer sarcastically replies that the state will take care of his son (the same state that has stolen his property and is imprisoning him for a crime he didn't commit). Pasha and Angela visit Roma and tell him that, with no guardians, he'll end up in the orphanage, and they offer to adopt him. Kolya's house, that he inherited from his folks, is readily destroyed to make room for Vadim's lucrative development and a new church. Vadim receives the phone call that Kolya has been sentenced to jail while he is dining alone in a fancy restaurant. His friend the priest delivers a sermon in church that sounds like a warning to resist the temptation of those who spread "lies". Vadim is sitting among the audience. When mass is over, he walks out chatting about the new church and we realize that it was built on Kolya's house.

Nelyubov/ Loveless (2017) is a "je accuse" of the new Russian bourgeoisie, emerged from communism to be extremely selfish and materialistic. The parents of the child only care about their own future, and the child is an obstacle to their happiness, besides being de facto the cause of their current unhappiness. They never truly recognized him as a living person, and perhaps they didn't want to recognize him even dead, refusing to take responsibility for both his melancholy life and his horrible death. (Not sure that the point is of showing the lengthy scene of the man having sex with a pregnant girlfriend).

Still photos of winter scenery in a wooded area. A boy leaves school and walks home through that area, but it is fall, not winter. From the window of his room he can see the buildings of the city in the distance. His mother tells him to tidy up the room because people are coming to see the apartment. She is selling it because she is divorcing the child's father. His mother tells the visitors that he is 12-year-old. He gets upset and leaves the room. In the evening his parents discuss the boy's future: neither wants him. The mother, Zhenya, thinks it should be the father's responsibility, because it's him, Boris, who cheated on her, but the father tries to convince her that the child needs his mother more. Meanwhile, the boy is hearing everything from his room and crying. Boris is also afraid of the reaction of his employer Beardy, a fanatical Christian, who not approve if they send the child to an orphanage. The following morning the boy, Alyosha , rushes to school and Boris drives to work listening to the radio that talks about the Maya prophecy that the world will end that winter (hence it must be 2012). During the lunch break he discusses with a colleague, Sergey, the firm's policy that bans divorces: if he divorces, he better get married again right away so at the next corporate party nobody will notice that he shows up with no wife. Zhenya takes the train to see her hair stylist. They chat about her new man, Anton, a middle-aged wealthy man with a daughter who is studying abroad. Her hairdresser complains that her daughter is 19 and doesn't want to work, and her husband is a drunk. Boris goes shopping in a supermarket with his new girlfriend Masha, who is pregnant with his child and lives with her mother. Her mother is visiting a relative and they have the apartment all to themselves, so they can have sex. Then Masha starts crying because she's scared that he will leave her like he's leaving Zhenya. Meanwhile, Anton picks up Zhenya and drives her to a fancy restaurant. Then they have sex in his apartment. She confesses to him that she never wanted the child, that she almost died giving birth to him, that she was repulsed by him, that she still blames the child for her misery. She always hated Alyosha. She then takes a taxi to go home and goes to sleep happy. The following morning Zhenya is informed by Alyosha's teacher that Alyosha has not been at the school for two days. She calls Boris but Boris is in line for lunch at the cafeteria and doesn't want to deal with it and tells her that she is overreacting. She calls the police. The police officer files the report after inspecting the boy's room and determining that the parents didn't kill him, but he tells her that the bureaucratic rules are to wait for the child to return home because in most cases they do. The cop advises her to call a volunteer group instead of the police. The volunteers come and starts investigating. There is only one relative who could have taken Alyosha in: Zhenya's mother, and her phone is off. The coordinator in charge, Ivan, asks them to visit granma and make sure the child is not hiding there, and sends another volunteer, Lena, to follow her. It's a long drive and it's getting dark. Boris and Zhenya yell at each other all the way. She insists on smoking, he rolls down her window and plays loud music. They reach the destination in the middle of the night. Lena searches the premises while Zhenya tells her mother that Alyosha is missing. Hearing of the divorce, her mom calls her a "whore", and swears that she will not bequeath anything to her when she dies. Her mom is afraid that they want to dump the child with her. On the way back, as the sun is coming up, Zhenya regrets not having listened to her mother when she got pregnant: her mother wanted her to get an abortion and ditch Boris, but instead she listened to Boris' sweet talk. She confesses that she never loved him, she just wanted to leave her mom. She curses the day she got pregnant, and she feels sorry for Masha, Boris' new victim. Boris stops the car in the middle of nowhere and kicks her out. Now the volunteers begin searching the woods. The police collect all the available videos from buildings, but the child doesn't show up in any of them. The police now contemplates the possibility of a kidnapping. Ivan asks Zhenya to call all the hospitals. Meanwhile, he interviews Alyosha's only friend, who leads them to a secret hideout, an abandoned ruined building. Inside Boris, who has joined the search, finds Alyosha's jacket. The volunteers search the ruined building, while outside it starts snowing, but find no trace of Alyosha. Then they start searching the forest as the snow stopped. Meanwhile, Lena accompanies Zhenya Anton Boris to a hospital where a child matching the description has just been admitted, but he's not Alyosha. The volunteers abandon the search when it starts snowing again, and they start searching buildings and posting flyers around the neighborhood. Ivan accompanies Zhenya and Boris to the morgue to examine the disfigured corpse of a child who matches the description. It is not Alyosha, but first Zhenya and then Boris have a nervous breakdown. Ivan suggests that they do a DNA test to make sure it is not their child, but they refuse. Years go by. It is now winter and the streets are blanketed with snow. Children play in the snow. The apartment is being remodeled by the new owners. Boris is watching his new son while watching the news about the Ukrainian civil war. Masha is talking with her mother who wants them to move out because the apartment is too small for four people. Meanwhile, Anton in his luxury house is watching the same news, while Zhenya is exercising. The film ends with the same wooded area of the beginning, where Alyosha used to walk coming back from school. There are still posters of missing person Alyosha.

Mikhail Krichman's camera work is a strong element of these films.

(Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )