Loveless (2017)

Loveless is mostly about a boy from a broken home who goes missing, but somehow it also wants to be about Russia and Ukraine’s broken relationship.


Andrei Zvyagintsev

Andrei Zvyagintsev
Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 125 minutes

Original title: Нелюбовь
Transliterated title: Nelyubov

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless has something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. But every time we think the director is about to make the connection clear, he lets go of the chain. This game of hide and seek perfectly suits the material he is working with: Minutes into the film, a 12-year-old boy, Alexey, runs away from home, where his parents are about to divorce, but neither wants to take him along on the ride to a brighter future. For the rest of the film’s 2-hour running time, he remains missing, even though the camera constantly lingers on empty scenes just to tease us with the possibility he will suddenly appear from out of frame. But he never does.

Thanks to snippets of radio programmes we hear in cars, we can deduce that most of the story takes place at the end of 2012, as (then–opposition leader, now the late) Boris Nemtsov is in the news and there is mention of an Obama–Romney debate. In the film’s final coda, the action moves to 2014, around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian television news networks flood the airwaves with stories about death and destruction in the country’s small neighbour to the West, all allegedly the fault of the newly installed government in Kyiv.

However, despite these political undertones, which only surface intermittently, the film lacks the furious anger that made Zvyagintsev’s previous work, Leviathan, so ambitious and affirmed him as one of the bravest big-name filmmakers working in Russia today. On the whole, Loveless wants us to focus more on the story of the lost boy rather than the allegorical implications the narrative might (or might not) entail, but for both emotional and structural reasons, that is not always easy.

The film certainly lives up to its title. Drained almost entirely of colour, the story initially takes place on the outskirts of a remote Moscow suburb, where monotonous Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks permeate the landscape and winter has turned the local park into a lifeless morass scattered with monstrous dead branches. In the scenes that follow, Loveless sketches Alexey’s ice-cold domestic situation in broad strokes that make us want to bolt from the apartment as quickly as possible.

The atmosphere is decrepit; in fact, the film could just as well have been called “lifeless”, although the two main characters – Alexey’s parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) – provide for riveting, stunningly tense scenes whenever they are in the same room. We also get to see, as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrated brilliantly, that children born from a mother who would rather see them aborted are bound for tragedy from Day 1.

There are no two ways about it: Zhenya is a terrible mother. Always more interested in her phone than in her son (or almost anything else, for that matter), she stares at her device from morning till night. But the director takes care to show us that she is not unique in this respect: In restaurants and elsewhere, Moscow’s young women can’t get enough of seeing themselves in their selfies. The difference, of course, is that Zhenya has a family, at least for the moment. There is a distinction to be made with the older generation, as a scene in which Zhenya’s own loud-mouthed mother steamrolls over her with a flood of rhetoric that leaves us reeling with admiration because someone has finally put her in her place.

Although we see him for a very short amount of time, which includes a revelation that stabs the viewer right through the heart, we can completely empathise with Alexey and understand why he chooses to run away. Zvyagintsev is also very attentive in his depiction of the police, who are surprisingly sincere about the situation, even though Zhenya doesn’t deserve it. 

But this is the kind of film only those who prefer their mysteries open-ended will appreciate. Zvyagintsev will likely lose many a viewer during some of the slower and more drawn-out scenes that do not lead very far and certainly don’t head in the direction of solving the central puzzle. One take that lasts for several minutes, in which the camera barely moves, shows Zhenya and her new boyfriend together in bed while she recounts the story of her pregnancy with Alexey. This could have been much shorter and simply integrated into another scene, when she and her husband are trapped in a car for several hours.

By the time Loveless reaches the scene from 2014 in which the Russian televisions are hysterically blaming the supposed violence in Ukraine on the West, it feels like Zvyagintsev is heading into different territory. But when we see Zhenya, who by the looks of it is still as cold and narcissistic as before, donning a bright-red tracksuit clearly labelled “RUSSIA” and seemingly unaffected by the violence onscreen, we know there is a connection with the domestic carnage that went before. Unfortunately, the link is just too tenuous to grasp.

Leviathan (2014)

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth film is a scathing take on religion and politics in modern-day Russia.


Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev

Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 140 minutes

Original title: Левиафан
Transliterated title:

Towards the end of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the long-suffering main character, Nikolai, meets an old priest in the grocery store of the small town in far northeastern Russia where the story takes place. Nikolai, or Kolya, the nickname by which almost everyone calls him, has faced hardships the past year that no hardworking man should have to deal with, and perhaps predictably the priest quotes Scripture, from the Book of Job: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?”

The quotation doesn’t help Kolya all that much (the priest also basically encourages him to grin and bear it), but at least we have the beginning of an explanation for the title, which refers to the giant sea monster God allegedly slayed. However, Zvyagintsev’s view of present-day Russian society is very bleak, and it would seem this time Leviathan is a monster even God himself is unable to tame, much less destroy.

The film is a devastating indictment not only of the rotten core of the country’s authorities, including the police, the judicial and the political systems, but also of the role of the Orthodox Church in the business of the state. Just as Jesus looks down from his cross on the congregation during a service, so, too, does Putin’s portrait (albeit a much younger version of the man) in the office of the town’s mayor, Vadim. Vadim’s deeds, however, read like “a horror story”, according to Kolya’s brother, Dmitri, a Moscovite lawyer who has come to help him fight the system.

What makes Leviathan such a daring work of art is that the director doesn’t shy away from taking on a handful of evil foes that one would assume can get him in trouble with the authorities. After all, the infamous Pussy Riot incident (and the subsequent penalties imposed on those who publicly criticise the regime), not long before the film’s release, made the power of the Church in Russian politics inescapably clear to the world.

The plot is mainly about the town’s decision to take prime land next to the sea, where Kolya has lived for many years, in a move that would be described as eminent domain, except there is no clear reason why the town would have to do this, save perhaps its sublime location. The case has ended up in the courts, because Kolya refused to accept the puny sum of money offered to him by the town (a slap in the face, considering the size of the house and the effort he has put into it over the years), and in a breathtaking scene, the court’s judge dismisses all Kolya’s objections with a slew of legalese, siding with the town. We later see the judge and her assistants taking notes from the mayor, who assures them that their continued cooperation would mean they will be re-appointed to the bench come the next election.

This scene in the courtroom – shot almost entirely in a single take, during which the camera slowly zooms in on the judge’s face as she reads out, at the pace of a machine gun going off, the history of the case and the complete rejection of Kolya’s claims – is simply amazing. It is subtly paralleled with a later scene in the Orthodox Church, in which the priest speaks at a similar tempo for a comparable amount of time.

But the film’s most pointed criticism of the state comes during a vodka-soaked hunting trip. When the man celebrating his birthday has had enough of shooting bottles, he suggests making things more interesting, and he brings portraits of former Soviet leaders to place as the target. We see Brezhnev and Lenin and Gorbachev. But then one of those in attendance slyly asks, “And do you have anyone more recent?” Of course, the audience knows exactly whom he has in mind.

This kind of lèse-majesté, which delicately suggests Putin should be shot, or at least that he is as flawed as previous Soviet leaders, may seem entirely appropriate to a Western audience, but Zvyagintsev has to know he is walking a very fine line here between art and resistance, which Putin is not exactly known for tolerating.

Leviathan flows inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, the plot more rich and lively than we would expect from a Zvyagintsev movie. The pace is less contemplative than we are used to in his films, except for the continual reminders of the waters rhythmically and unstoppably breaking on the shore. Philip Glass’s expressive “Akhnaten”, which bookends the film, resonates with us the moment it starts and proves to be a powerful way of suggesting the almost operatically tragic aspect of the events we see unfolding. At the same time, however, the church is never far from implicated, and a brief shot of a painting on the wall of an old church, showing the head of John the Baptist on a plate, reminds us that things will not necessarily turn out well for those who live a righteous life.

In his most powerful film to date, Zvyagintsev uses the confluence of religion and politics to make a statement about the endemic corruption and the far-reaching tentacles of those in power, portrayed with his always exquisite eye for stunning imagery. This is one to see.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The Major (2013)

In a tiny village in the Russian heartland, a desperate cop tries to fight the consequences of a terrible accident.


Yuri Bykov

Yuri Bykov

Director of Photography:
Kiri Klepalov

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Майор
Transliterated title: Mayor

On a desolate road in the Russian countryside, a man is driving like a bat out of hell. There are very few cars about, but he seems to pose a threat to himself every time he passes another vehicle on the highway.

He is called Sergey Soubolev (Denis Shvedov), and despite his reckless driving, he is his small town’s deputy chief of police. He has just received a phone call from the maternity ward in the next town, where his wife has gone into labour, and he is desperate to be there as quickly as possible.

But in his frenzy, he fails to notice the pedestrian crossing in time, and fearing the icy road would pose a greater threat to his safety if he slammed on the brakes, he heads for the ditch on the side of the road, but at exactly that moment, a small boy runs away from the oncoming car…  in the same direction. The 7-year-old Kolya doesn’t die immediately, but in his shock, Sergey throws the mother, Irina, into his car, locks her inside and phones his colleagues at the police station. In the meantime, the boy perishes in the snow.

What follows is a harrowing scene that we know will turn out badly for the grieving mother, whose fate is in the hands of the policemen who want to protect their friend Sergey, a colleague whose record is otherwise spotless and who gets along very well with the rest of the force.

Although not exactly an indictment of the corruption among the Russian police in the countryside, The Major is a fascinating study of power in the tiny setup that is the local police station, affected by the regional forces of the Internal Affairs Ministry, their reputation among the townsfolk and the ever-present criminal underworld that we notice on the margins. Sergey, the second-in-command at the station, wants to hold on to his job, but he has come this far without turning his back on his own moral values, and now that he is about to become a father, he is between a rock and a hard place: He wants to be in a position to provide for his family, but he also wants to atone for what he has done, and he doesn’t shy away from his guilt in Kolya’s death.

However, an admission that he was at fault, especially after the speedy cover-up his friends provided at the scene of the crime, would have disastrous consequences for the reputation of the police force, and everyone around him tries to convince him to coerce the mother into taking the blame for her son’s death. His friend Pasha (played by director Yuri Bykov), who at first seems to be helpful, becomes a force of violence in the film, who seeks to solve the ongoing crisis in the department with aggression, openly insulting and intimidating Irina and her husband, whose son’s body isn’t even cold yet.

In the second half of the film, Pasha, who obviously considers himself to be the keeper of the police force’s standing, takes centre stage as he uses his firearm as often as possible to obliterate the rolling avalanche of problems that originated with Sergey’s accident and the cover-up that he feels Sergey is not sufficiently grateful for. We see almost as many scenes with Pasha as with Sergey, and we get small clues about his character’s motivations that greatly enrich our impression of him.

There is a lot of bloodshed in the second half of the film, as events continue to spiral out of control, but the camera stays on top of everything, and a few characters deliver important snippets of dialogue that make us second-guess our thoughts on some key individuals.

Director of photography Kiri Klepalov supplies superb unbroken tracking shots, and two in particular stand out: The first occurs in a crowded hallway in the police station while there is a hostage situation one floor down and Sergey takes control of his men again, showing his skill at tactical solutions when he feels passionately about protecting his men; the second is seen a few short scenes later, when Sergey exits the police station, gets into a car, drives through the town to blocks of high-rise apartment buildings and exits one of them. The unbroken continuity of this second take and the continuous excitement and interest its content provokes are signs of a detailed directorial approach that should be commended.

One flaw is that the opening scene, in which Sergey gets the phone call about his wife at the hospital, seems to take a back seat for the entire duration of the film, until it conveniently rears its head again to create a convenient bookend in the final scene.

Although action-packed, The Major, thanks to the director’s role as Pasha, the very likable title character, Sergey, and a dynamic camera with some wonderful moves, rises above the level of a pure adrenaline ride. The individuals at the heart of the drama have some very understandable conflicts that provoke tension because a bona fide solution escapes us, too.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013