Extremely bleak and depressing even by Russian standards, the third film of writer-director Yury Bykov, The Fool (Durak), is also his best. An explosive combination of highly personal moral drama and a wider, scathing portrait of a country in which corruption and greed seem to be the only shared values left, this well-oiled narrative machine is further aided by a clever ticking-clock mechanism that actually ratchets up the tension the longer the characters’ vodka-soaked, blame-game speeches are allowed to go on. This Locarno competition title will undoubtedly be Bykov’s biggest hit to date, attracting not only scores of festival invites but also courting interest from boutique art house distributors, possibly on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bykov again wrote, directed and edited the film and also composed the music, though unlike in his second film, the 2013 Cannes Critics’ Week hit The Major, the multihyphenate doesn’t play one of the protagonists. Instead, he has cast Artem Bystrov in the lead, whose Average Joe countenance hides a startling intensity. Probably not coincidentally, Bystrov was first seen in last year’s aggressive male posturing drama Break Loose from esteemed director Alexey Uchitel, who produces here through his company Rock Films.
A Russian plumber, Dima Nikitin (Bystrov), is also a municipal repair-crew chief in an unnamed Russian town that’s not even 40 years old, though some of the city’s housing blocks are already in a grave state of disrepair. A routine burst bathroom pipe in one of the rickety communal housing buildings unearths a much larger problem, as the exterior wall behind the pipe has cracked and started to shift. When Nikitin goes outside to inspect the matter, he realizes the building has fissured from the ground right up to the ninth and last floor.
Though it’s not officially part of his district, Dima’s sense of personal responsibility gets the better of him in the middle of the night and he decides to go and talk to the higher-ups, especially after he calculates how much time is left for a construction of that height before it splits in two and crumbles — which turns out to be less than 24 hours.
The knowledge that the 800 or so inhabitants might go down with the building has Dima racing to the 50th birthday party of Nina Galaganova (Nataliya Surkova), the town’s imperious mayor, to convince her to evacuate the building. He thus bypasses his direct boss, the corrupt inspector of public housing, Federotov (Boris Nevzorov), who only supplied a coat of paint the last time he received funds for a major overhaul, preferring to funnel the money into work on his daughter’s personal residence.
Nina’s extended, behind-closed-doors meeting with Dima, Federotov and heads of several other departments, including the fire brigade, is the film’s nerve center and it soon becomes clear that the worst fears of Dima’s wife (Darya Moroz) about the city council’s deep-seated dishonesty and corruption are true. The feverish gathering takes place in a meeting room next to the hotel restaurant where Nina’s birthday party is still in full swing, with the thumping music filtering into the room like a severe headache that just won’t go away.
Surkova is fantastic as the orders-barking mayor who realizes that 800 potential deaths would be a disaster — if she’s blamed for it — and who has to also consider the pragmatic difficulties of moving everyone out of the critical damaged building in a city that simply doesn’t have anywhere else to put them.
As the assembled try to pass off culpability and increasingly blatant and aggressive accusations fly left and right, the fact that this city council (and, by extension, Russia’s ruling class) is rotten to the core becomes painstakingly clear, while each second the officials spend in the room adds tension due to the knowledge that hundreds of unsuspecting souls are facing a potentially lethal situation. (Bykov wisely refrains from cutting back to the building during the meeting except for a single inspection visit.)
In the midst of all this, Dima stands as a lone beacon of moral rectitude — something that, after the film’s most shocking but absolutely logical twist, even those close to him blame him for when it appears he might have to pay for his act of conscience with his own life.
The film’s dark, nighttime color palette suggests modern-day Russia is inhospitable at best, while the countless extras in the building (poor, drunk, unemployed or drug-addled riffraff) and at Nina’s party (rich and decadent) visually suggests the societal disparity caused by the bad behavior of the ruling class. Nina’s fiery red dress and ruby-laden jewelry not only signal she’s a she-devil and in many ways a continuation of Communist-era leaders but also rather straightforwardly display the accumulated riches of a woman who, in another bitterly ironic twist, rose up from the lower classes she herself now so disdains, as an innocent-seeming birthday speech unwittingly reveals.
Production company: Rock Films
Cast: Artem Bystrov, Nataliya Surkova, Boris Nevzorov, Kirill Polukhin, Darya Moroz, Yury Tsurilo, Irina Nizina, Alexander Korshunov, Maxim Pinsker
Writer-Director-Editor-Composer: Yury Bykov
Producers: Alexey Uchitel, Kira Saksaganskaya
Executive producers: Elena Bystrova, Philipp Pastukhov
Director of photography: Kirill Klepalov
Production designer: Stanislav Novak
Costume designer: Olga Pogodina
No rating, 116 minutes