Greetings again from the darkness. It may surprise some that the most relatable of the Foreign Language films submitted for Oscar consideration this year may be a rural Russian re-imagining of the Book of Job with a tip of the cap to a 1651 book from Thomas Hobbes, and so much alcohol consumption that it should carry a Warning notice for anyone in recovery.
Please don’t interpret the description of relatable to mean likable or enjoyable, at least not in the traditional sense. This latest from director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, 2003) is tough to watch with its theme of the working class vs the government. Who holds the power in this clash is obvious in a case of eminent domain, as Kolya (Aleksey Sorebryakov) tries everything (including blackmail) to hold on to his home and business in a fight against the Mayor (Roman Madyanov).
Religion, politics, and the judicial system team up to ensure the imbalance of power remains in effect, and Kolya’s belief in the system slowly evaporates. It’s particularly interesting to note how his consumption of Vodka evolves from a shot glass to full bottles as his home slips away.
The story takes place in northwest Russia in the Kola Peninsula of the Barents Sea. It’s a dramatic setting with vast landscapes, including the carcasses of fishing boats and giant whales … a statement of what happens to those left behind as times change – much like what happens to Kolya.
As dramatic as the landscape is, the story is actually quite small. It’s the struggle of one family against a system that has corruption down to a science. When Kolya asks his lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitschenkov) to play dirty with the Mayor, he has no idea how this will impact his life and that of his younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev).
There is very little comic relief in the film … only a single sequence involving target practice on pictures of past Russian officials, but the story and acting are so grounded that at times it feels much like a documentary. It’s always a bit of a cold slap to be reminded of how the righteous often struggle with injustice, but rarely will you see it better presented than this.