Loveless & Childless in Russia
As the title would suggest, this is a cold, somewhat hard-to-watch film in which the two main characters are bitter and selfish people. Zhenya and Boris are at the tail end of a vicious divorce, with both determined to hurt each other as much as possible, and leaving their 12 year old son, Alyosha, as collateral damage. Boris is portrayed as quiet, brooding and preoccupied. A keg ready to explode. He is clearly fed up with his soon to be ex-wife, and out of touch with his son. Zhenya is a scorned woman who came from a rough background. She is full of rage and resentment, lashing out at both Boris and Alyosha whenever possible. She is a hateful mother, with borderline abusive tendencies. Boris has cheated on his wife and is starting a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, while Zhenya is focused on a serious new relationship of her own. As they aggressively push their marriage over the finish line, they put their apartment in Russia on the market and pack things up, mentally as well as physically. Throughout the process, they make it clear that neither of them has room for their son in the next phase of their lives.
In a particularly pivotal scene, Boris has come home late from work and the two fall into what is obviously an all too familiar routine of arguing vehemently while they assume Alyosha is sleeping. As the fighting ensues, they debate who should take custody, with neither wanting to assume responsibility. Unbeknownst to them, he is in the next room quietly sobbing, ravaged by rejection, fear and depression. Sometime at the end of next work day, Boris and Zhenya stay overnight with their new lovers, but thinking the other is at home. It is only upon Zhenya’s return well over 24 hours later, that she realizes Alyosha has not been at school or home the whole time. Unloved and unwanted, Alyosha has vanished from the town and their lives. Is this a matter of a runaway child, or foul play? The contentious couple are forced together to help in the search that has already started two days too late. Delaying the search and seemingly making matters worse, is an uncaring police officer who is dismissive of the child’s disappearance and refers them to a specialist.
Although the unfortunate circumstances has made the couple face some inner demons, they are not rebuked or punished for their sin of neglect, and you want them to be. There are no true revelations nor seemingly lessons learned. Although on one hand filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan” 2014) excelled at showing the raw realism of the disintegration of a marriage that should have never been, on the other he seemingly, missed opportunities to create a grittier mystery and develop intrigue and deeper character development. Being the brilliant director that he is, one can assume this is by design. Hauntingly shot in blue and grey tones, “Loveless” is a stark, taut, uniquely interesting drama filled with soul-less personas. This could possibly be appropriate to the particular community and to these specific characters than would be elsewhere, but at times feels a bit too alienating. Perhaps this contribute to what many say makes it “very Russian” and why it has deservedly earned a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. At its core, we are given the only one sympathetic character, and he is gone early on. Instead, you are left with Boris and Zhenya. They are like the horrific car accident you should but can’t turn away from.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Adrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin
Actors: Maryanna Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 127 min.
Review by Paula Farmer
This stunning drama from the Middle East could have been titled A Simple Apology, with the conflict, the story’s entire premise resolved quickly and easily with those two ever elusive words, “I’m sorry.” Instead it proves there would be nothing simple about an apology as there’s nothing simple about this film. It’s achingly complex and speaks volumes about what it means to be a victim, a refugee, and who bears the burden of a nation’s past sins. A spark turns into a flame of ethnic tension when a minor incident and misunderstanding between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee embroils the two in a lawsuit. Along the way, families feud and communities and cultures collide. With this seemingly simple premise, Beirut native, director Ziad Doueiri (“Lila Says” and “West Bierut”) has woven a complex drama touching on several social issues and leaving audiences both aghast and moved. By the film’s conclusion, it’s obvious why it has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film (and will probably win).
Palestinian general contractor Yasser Salameh, is overseeing a pivotal project in a Beirut neighborhood. While canvassing the project’s progress, he notices a damaged gutter coming from one of the resident’s houses. When he approaches the owner, Tony Hannah, offering to fix it, he is met with disgust, disdain and a resounding no to his offer. When the gutter’s issue persists and Tony manages to land a bucketful of water Yasser’s way, understandable cursing ensues and hostility between the two ignite. After a series of events, The hot tempered, seemingly easily offended Tony insists on an apology from Yasser. Although the promise of an apology is extended by the company he works for, and Yasser is poised to relent, things instead take a turn for the worse. In the face of Yasser’s pride sucking moment, Tony hurls an insult that encompasses Yasser’s entire nation. Instead of an apology, Tony gets two broken ribs.
The matter quickly escalates from the hospital to the courtroom, with both parties easily lawyered up because of the social significance of their case. Their war of words result in a two month trial and a media frenzy that divide the country and drudge up deep wounds that go far beyond slander and offense exchanged between a resident and a refugee. The communities on both sides of the political divide are swept up in the emotional battle that the tense legal drama has unleashed. Things take an unexpected turn when true motives are unearthed and the plaintiff’s traumatic family history revealed. We’ve long been aware of the victimization of Palestinians, but the trial raises questions as to who really is the victim, or are they both? Are they martyrs of insults and punches, or politics, war, ethnic cleansing and stolen childhoods? Will this trial just settle a dispute over a gutter or a grudge, or could it set a precedent by examining old war wounds?
Doueiri proves graceful and adept at navigating the obvious, as well as introducing the complex and profound. His main characters, portrayed fantastically by Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha, go from seemingly one dimensional to multi-layered. The film’s pitch perfect pacing and the superbly written political drama, coupled with its humanitarian factor, make it not only one of the best foreign films of 2017, but one of the best films of the year.