The Fool | Yuriy Bykov | Russia | 2014 | 116 minutes
The Fool was a late addition to the lineup this week, suggested by everyone’s favorite Madison cineaste, Larry Hamlin, who had had put the film on his own 2015 to-see list. Thanks to Larry, I spent more time wallowing in pretty depressing post-Soviet milieus than I anticipated when I started organizing the Missed Madison Film Festival.
Well, Monday’s Hard to Be a God is adapted from a Soviet-era science fiction novel set in a medieval period on another planet, but it felt like the inhabitants could have come out of a post-Soviet public housing block. The juvenile delinquency and crime depicted in yesterday’s Ukrainian drama, The Tribe, are symptomatic of years of social and economic burdens in the former Soviet Union.
Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool isn’t as stylistically adventurous as those two films, but it vividly portrays how deeply political corruption has entrenched itself in everyday Russian life and in the popular imagination. As a drama and a character study, it is very compelling. It is an unusual “ticking-clock” narrative in that no one seems to be alarmed that the clock is ticking. The frustration this causes the viewer parallels the frustration of the protagonist, who can’t seem to convince anyone that action must be taken to save lives. In the end, anyone who believes that the right and moral course will be taken is a fool.
Dima (Artyom Bystrov) is an assistant plumber, and as a municipal employee he does not see much chance for job advancement. Despite having a wife and child to support, he makes financial sacrifices to take courses in architecture to improve his life. He lives in a small apartment with his parents, and we soon see how corruption has ingrained itself in the social fabric of the town. Dima’s mother berates Dima’s father for not taking something for himself at his job, because everyone else does. In fact, everyone considers Dima’s father an idealistic fool for not taking part in the widespread and deep-rooted corruption throughout the city.
Dima shares his father’s idealism, however. When Dima is called to a public housing complex to fix a pipe, he discovers what could be a catastrophic problem. An alarming crack in the wall stretches from the first to ninth floor, with a similar crack on the other side of the building. Although Dima is not a certified architect or engineer, he consults his course textbooks and concludes that the building could collapse in the next 24 hours, burying its 800 residents. Dima cannot turn his back on these endangered people, even though they are not his responsibility.
Dima faces two obstacles to evacuating the building’s occupants. First, he has to convince municipal leaders that there is in fact a problem. Then he has to convince them to do something about it.
City leaders are gathered at a birthday party for the mayor, Nina Galaganova (Natalia Surkova), who is nicknamed “Mama” because of her purported maternal care for her city. Dima convinces Nina to assemble department heads at the party to discuss the situation. But Dima’s superior, Fedotov (Boris Nevzorov) is convinced that Dima is simply “stirring up shit” in an attempt to leverage for a promotion. Despite the ticking clock and the lives at stake, it takes a visit to the apartment complex to convince Fedotov otherwise.
Then there’s the matter of what to do to address the crisis. The problem, of course, is that any attempt to save the residents will ultimately expose the corruption of city leaders, including Mayor Nina, who were supposed to address such structural problems with funds embezzled long ago.
The performances across the cast are impressive, as each character must justify his or her moral relativism in relation to their crimes, and they must decide to what lengths they will go to protect their interests. The eventual proposed solution should shock us, but it doesn’t because the actors have humanized some pretty horrible people.
If Dima were to look out for his own best interests, or if he understood the cold logic of deep-rooted corruption, he never would have “stirred up shit.” But he does because he’s one of the few humans remaining in the town. That does not prevent him from looking like a fool in everyone’s eyes. That the one human remaining does indeed look like a fool reveals what years of corruption can do to an individual and to a community.
Check out other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews posted throughout the day:
James Kreul on The Fool and Emily Caulfield on Love here at Madison Film Forum.
David Klein on Slow West at LakeFrontRow.
Vincent Mollica on In My Father’s House at WUD Film Presents.
Four Star Video Podcast discusses The Voices.