Russia’s Dead Souls: A Tale of Two Movies

by Pranab Bardhan

Ever since my childhood I have been excited, even electrified, by movies. In my college days in Calcutta, in search of alternate experience beyond Indian and Hollywood movies, I used to frequent the local Film Society events, showing some commercially unavailable European fare. Short of funds these Film Society outfits mainly went for movies they could procure at low cost. The East European consulates in the city were particularly generous in making available films from their countries.

Most of them involved grim, but occasionally gripping, stories of life struggles under Nazi occupation and oppression, laced with heart-warming episodes of small triumphs or tragic acts of heroism. It was only much later that I realized that some of these stories were also muffled and indirect protests of the directors against the then Soviet domination in their countries. This was the case, for example, in some of the films of the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda (whose early films like Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds I had seen several times in Calcutta). His father was among the thousands of Polish officers killed in Katyn forest by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. (Wajda finally made a film about the Katyn massacre much later in his life, when he was in his 80s).

After Calcutta, when I went to Cambridge, England, as a student, for the first time I was exposed to what can be called an ‘abundanza’ of European art films. To borrow the words of the Irish writer John Banville, for me it was an “opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumblebee in full-blown summer” (Banville had used these words to describe his ecstatic exploration of his lover’s female body). A couple of movie halls in Cambridge used to specialize in arranging retrospectives of these art films.

Twice or thrice every week I used to steal away from my desk in the library to watch movies in the matinee show, which were cheaper than the regular shows. The halls at that hour were largely empty, except for some old people who found out that given the senior discounts available for the matinee show, they were a much cheaper source of warmth than heating their own homes in the damp cold of Cambridge.

So many an afternoon in the dark halls, amidst a symphony of snoring pensioners, I undauntedly concentrated on the sublime films, which often being in black and white, made it particularly difficult to decipher the white subtitles on the screen. These were mostly French, Italian and Swedish films, with a smattering of Spanish, German or East European ones. I have often missed such sumptuous variety in recent decades of available offerings of European cinema (of course, with several remarkable exceptions, including the films of the Belgian Dardenne brothers, of the French team of Agnes Jaoui with her ex-partner Jean-Pierre Bacri, and of another great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski in collaboration with his music composer Zbigniew Preisner).

In the last couple of years, watching two Russian movies by the director Andrey Zvyagintsev, I had a flashback of the intensity and passion of the old-style European art films that used to mesmerize me— they are titled ‘Leviathan’ (2014) and ‘Loveless’ (2017). Both are pitilessly bleak films about contemporary Russia, but the subtlety and craftsmanship evident in the films, as much as the crushing despair haunting them made it difficult for me to take my eyes off the screen even for a moment.

Let me begin with the more recent film, ‘Loveless’. It starts with a thin 12-year old boy, Alyosha, walking back from school through the desolate wintry backwoods. He reaches his apartment where his parents (Zhenya and Boris) are going through the last stages of a bitter divorce. They have started the process of selling the apartment, and we hear them loudly and acrimoniously argue, making clear their unwillingness to take responsibility for the boy. Zhenya coldly suggests that maybe he should be sent to a boarding school, and then to the Army. Behind a door we see the face of the overhearing boy, frozen in a silent scream, a scream you’ll not easily forget.

Then we see Boris in his office, his main worry being the chance of losing his job if his divorce becomes public knowledge, as his devoutly religious employer dislikes employees with broken families. Boris gets his comfort from a younger mistress, already heavily pregnant with his child. Zhenya runs a beauty salon, and more often than not we see her selfie-absorbed and Facebook-addicted. The source of her comfort is her torrid love affair with an older, affluent man.

Both parents busy with their respective affairs do not notice for a couple of days that Alyosha has gone missing, until the school brings it to their attention. Mutual recriminations and obvious concern follow. In searching for the boy they get help, not from the police, but from a voluntary organization which arranges for well-ordered search parties through the woods and abandoned massive decrepit buildings. The image of the volunteers in their orange jackets combing through the forest, shouting Alyosha’s name, we know all in vain, is also unforgettable. Belying the usual sentimental half-expectation of the audience, the desperate search does not bring the feuding couple any closer, nor can they trace Alyosha ever again.

In concluding episodes three years later we see a glum Boris with his new child, and Zhenya in her lover’s posh apartment, with her svelte body and stony face running on a treadmill, while in the background radio and TV continue blaring news of a world falling apart.

The characters in the movie, even when they are not likable, are much too human, often distracted and conflicted. Beyond the pathology of the individual characters, the director’s technique of long shots and relentless unblinking gaze and the wintry landscape outside make us somehow aware of a larger moral rot of a hollow society, trapped in a solipsistic rat-race treadmill, going nowhere. The futile search for Alyosha through a wasteland merges in our mind with the search for an (injured) innocence lost forever.

The other movie, “Leviathan”, is a more powerful and more explicitly political drama. It’s about the inexorably losing battle of an ordinary but stubborn individual against a corrupt state, spineless judiciary, and a complicit orthodox church spouting pious platitudes. Kolya, a middle-aged auto-mechanic has his house on his ancestral land in prime sea-side real estate in a coastal small town in Northern Russia. He has been served an eviction order by the venal thuggish mayor of the town, Vadim, in an obvious “eminent domain” scam (not unfamiliar in the current frenzy of land acquisition in developing countries). When legal recourse in a rigged system fails, Kolya’s army buddy, a slick Moscow lawyer, Dmitri, tries to salvage things by digging out an incriminating file on the mayor. Faced with this blackmail, the mayor, after a temporary retreat, gathers all his institutional power (and goons), and finally comes crushing down on Kolya.

Meanwhile Dmitri has an affair with Kolya’s young beautiful wife, Lilya, which Kolya soon finds out about and becomes violent. A depressed Lilya leaves the house one gray morning, and goes missing. Her body is discovered in the water a few days later. A mournful and drunken Kolya asks why God is doing all this to him, echoing the biblical story of Job where the righteous Job had sufferings heaped on him. Then the police come and arrest Kolya; he is convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to 15 years of prison. His house gets razed to the ground. The film ends with a sermon by the complicit bishop telling his congregation (which includes the mayor) to put their trust in Christ.

Utter despair drenched in vodka floats like mist in the elegantly framed shots of the film. Along with mordant satire the director’s compassion for the lost and crushed human characters shines in the darkness. The reference to Leviathan —either the biblical sea-monster of that name or the Hobbesian all-powerful state —is about a beast that cannot be fought or tamed by the individual. The big hulk of the skeletal remains of a giant whale beached long ago in the coast near Kolya’s house dominates the austere Artic landscape all through, enhancing the existential melancholy, heightened in the beginning and at the end of the movie by music extracts from Philip Glass’s opera, Akhnaten.

Yet hope flickers in our mind for a country where such movies are made against all odds (including disapproval of the authorities), a country which has a long tradition of great literature, music, art, and culture arising magically from a deep well of pain, outrage and the ravages of history. In the rest of the world any reference to Russia these days usually brings in mind the headline news about Putin’s mafia state and its evil designs including its election hacking in other countries (following, of course, the long trail of similar CIA chicanery in many other countries). But the deeper cultural undercurrents in society often get overlooked.

I was reminded of this in a recent trip to Moscow for a conference. During a lunch break in the conference I decided to take a walk in a nearby park. It was early October and already snow flurries were in the air. Near the gate of the park I saw a large statue, which I assumed would be of a military hero or a political leader. But when I looked up I saw the soft features of a woman in a flowing dress. Because of my ignorance of the Russian language I could not decipher the name of the person etched at the bottom. But I did notice a bunch of fresh flowers placed there. Back at the conference my colleagues informed me that it was the statue of the poet Anna Akhmatova. When I asked about the flowers, I was told that I’d see similar bunches of fresh flowers at the feet of statues of other writers and poets in different parts of the city. Is this arranged by the municipal authorities, I asked. No, I was told, the flowers are regularly put there by the admirers of these writers. I come from a city (Calcutta) where poets are adored and which has probably a larger number of poets per square kilometer than many other cities. But this kind of deference to poets and writers and high culture even among common people in Russia is impressive by any standard.

Akhmatova happens to be one of my favorite poets. Let me end with one of her short poems which have haunted me for a long time:

I drink to the wreck of our life together,
And the pain of living alone.
I drink to the loneliness we shared—
My dear, I drink to you.
I drink to the trick of a mouth that betrayed me,
To the eyes and the look that lied.
I drink to the terrible world we inhabit
And to God, who never replied.