As a metaphor for the precarious state of the Russian nation, a gigantic crack in a building on the verge of collapse isn’t particularly subtle, but The Fool is too agitated a film to bother with subtle niceties. Yuri Bykov’s third feature is in the same vein as a slew of recent Russian films sounding a strident alarm: Alexei Balabanov’s dark-heart-of-the-countryside atrocity-fest Cargo 200 (Bykov’s film is dedicated to Balabanov); Andrei Zvyaginstev’s attacks on the oligarchy in Elena and the intertwined, corrupt government and Russian Orthodox Church in Leviathan; and Angelina Nikonova’s Twilight Portrait, which begins with the police gang-rape of a young woman. At a Q&A for Twilight Portrait at Lincoln Center, Nikonova noted that this instigating event was just the tip of an iceberg that routinely extends to worse abuses of authority. Bykov’s film relentlessly proceeds on the same operating principle.
The apocalyptic tone is set with a hellish opening scene in an apartment hallway. Seeking cash for more booze, a drunk man beats his wife and daughter until a huge cloud of steam unexpectedly bursts from a pipe. Across town, in a less ravaged apartment building, plumber Dima (Artyom Bystrov) fends off a gang of teens who routinely break the bench outside amid their brawls. During a dreary family dinner, the stakes are clearly articulated, as Dima’s shrewish, nagging mother (the film’s women are uniformly horrid) urges him to accept corruption rather than cling to impoverished idealism. Called away to the site of the opening scene’s explosion, Dima discovers a huge crack running inside and outside that’s shifting the edifice’s flaky foundation. The structure will be lucky to stand another 24 hours before it collapses, killing the 800 residents inside.
Town mayor Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova) and her self-enriching cabinet don’t want to hear this news. Dima presents his grim findings in the middle of an all-night party celebrating Galaganova’s 20 years in charge, forcefully laying out the facts in a conference room far from the gaudy dance floor and dining room. The faint thumping of tacky dance music bleeds in throughout, a constant irritant underscoring the big gap between what’s being publicly and loudly celebrated—municipal stability—and the grim reality being privately and quietly discussed—a budget plundered for personal greed and bribes for those above, leaving no working infrastructure. While awaiting decisions from Galaganova, the cabinet members slug vodka and trade lacerating mutual recriminations. One man says he wishes he were a surgeon instead of a public official, bringing the response, “God save me from your operating table. You’d cut out my kidney and sell it.” Then again, the police chief notes that he can’t cast aspersions: As a Russian, he’d of course take a bribe to look the other way. The dialogue is broadly generalized, urgently on point, and bracing in its undisguised diagnostic fury.
If you can accept its unabashed didacticism, The Fool plays crisply. Bykov’s self-effacing shooting style trends toward inconspicuous static and handheld shots that connect the dots between the self-loathing, corrupt officials and the dispossessed citizens they’ve fleeced. The nine floors of the doomed building are a nightmarish microcosm for a nation of delinquent teens, abusive drunks, and the forgotten elderly—precisely those people who’ve been created and discarded by the rapacious state. The repeatedly posed question: Are these lost people even worth saving? Dima believes in the inherent value of human life, which makes him an outlier in this film’s grim moral universe, both to the officials and their resignedly degenerate subjects. His title status as a fool (in an updated and secularized Russian tradition, a holy truth-teller without regard for the consequences) leads to constant chewing-out from both sides of this polarized society.
While The Fool is a specific indictment of contemporary Russia, its portrait of vested interests who spurn bad news that could threaten their personal gain is applicable to the worlds of global warming activism, high finance, or any other situation in which disruptive whistle-blowers threaten the ruling hegemony. Nonetheless, this is a very Russian story, one that’s counterintuitively financed in part by the Ministry Of Culture. Following Leviathan, Ministry director Vladimir Medinsky has threatened to stop funding the production of what he (not incorrectly) labeled the “Russia is shit” sub-genre. The very existence of these urgent state-of-the-nation addresses may come to depend on private and foreign money, with The Fool one of the last such films to slide under the state funding wire.