Mostly skipping Australian shores, the long and winding road from the Locarno competition in 2014 to the 2015 New Zealand International Film Festival has seen Yury Bykov’s The Fool (Durak) suffer from the success of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s far more prestigious Leviathan, another recent Russian film dealing with local government corruption.1 Though both films reflecting growing social unrest throughout Russia, Bykov’s film is less a call-to-arms than a bleak portrait of a nation defeated, not necessarily by the strong armed tactics of government but rather the nature of humanity itself. Echoing his last film, The Major, here too the narrative follows a string of bad decisions and ratcheting tension, with self-preservation rearing its head as the defining goal for most of its characters.
Though the insult is bandied around a lot, Artem Bystrov plays the titular fool, an engineering student named Dima who works as a maintenance crewmember in his local district. When a hot water pipe bursts in the ramshackle apartment of an abusive drunk in the middle of the night, Dima is tasked with assessing the damage. What he discovers is massive structural defects in the building, now with cracks running on two sides from the 1st to the 9th floor, to the extent that he believes the building with collapse within a day. Needing higher authority to order the evacuation of the 800 residents, he finds the mayor and the other district heads of department celebrating at her 50th birthday party. Dima’s proclamations of death and disaster sober up the powerful but their response is less pre-occupied with public safety than public image.
The reason Dima is foolish is because of an unwavering righteousness and idealism, a belief that one should never take more than they are given and that you can succeed without corrupting yourself. Bykov’s film presents a world in which Dima is sorely mistaken. Because of this approach, much of the film is didactic and heavy-handed (the collapsing foundation of the building is a very neat metaphor), though there is a sense of self-awareness amongst the diatribes. This mainly shines through in the caustic wit which underlines the interactions of the town’s leaders, who consider themselves “normal people” high above the poor who occupy that building in question. As the pulsing dance music of the party outside is reduced to mere din in their meeting room, the ticking time bomb of the building issue is likewise relegated to the background, the focus moves to them squabbling about each other’s corrupt practices and the idea that if one of them goes down, they all do. In this sequence as well, perhaps one of the best in the whole film, so too is Dima relegated to being out of focus, and Bykov dares us to also ignore the impending tragedy that initially propelled the film’s plot.
In the film’s second half the bleak humour mostly dries up, leaving in its wake a nihilistic assessment of modern-day Russia. Bykov also shifts gears in terms of genre and tension, moving from a social drama to a tense thriller. What’s interesting in this respect is that the tension isn’t related to the collapsing of the building but the safety of Dima and the leaders in the town. The threat isn’t the people, we’re told, but financial investors who “used to tear people to shreds in the ’90s” and the ever-present fear of government-sanctioned execution. Politically, Bykov’s film takes swipes at both communist ideals and capitalism, reflecting an entirely broken political system in need of complete overhaul.
Nataliya Surkova, as the mayor Nina, delivers the most compelling performance in the film. Though Bystrov is very much our anchor, Surkova makes Nina a multi-faceted character ever concerned with her position of power and influence but never to the extent that she becomes a caricature. Her decision process within the film is the source of much narrative tension and her actions, particularly in the last 40 minutes of the film, waver between the harsh and cruel decisions of a powerful figure and moves of perverse logic by someone who knows themself to be merely a tiny cog in a colossal machine.
Something Bykov and cinematographer Kirill Klepalov seem attached to throughout The Fool is the medium-length take, but in a way that never really draws attention to itself, only in retrospect do the movements of the actors and extras reveal themselves to be cleverly choreographed. For a film that follows a seemingly simple arc and approach to characters, the handheld cinematography grounds the film in the present, and the way in which Klepalov’s camera weaves down hallways and into rooms gives us a tangible sense of space.
The film’s end, whilst a seemingly pre-ordained and logical conclusion, does feel somewhat tiresome in both its finality and didactic message. That said, the increasing complexity of allegiance, power and the performative nature of both vested self-interest and selflessness makes The Fool a bracing and satisfying assessment of a political rubric that relies upon the existence and submission of a neglected lower class.