A Necessary Evil, by West Anthony
How easy is it to do evil? How easy is it to justify evil? It would be pleasant to believe that answers to such questions remain timeless, but when one sees more and more crimes going unpunished, more injustices unanswered, more thoughtlessness, selfishness, treachery and greed, it seems as though such quaint notions as right and wrong are more frequently cast aside in favor of personal gain. From current events to “reality” TV, the evils of others increasingly seem only to justify our own ethical compromises, if not outright transgressions. Elena, the third film from Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a compellingly tangled examination of morality in decline in the 21st century; it is set in Russia, but could just as easily exist in post-meltdown America, or for that matter any land that has been affected by recent global economic catastrophes. And it is a film that, like Zvyagintsev’s spellbinding debut feature The Return, suggests that our perceptions may be clouded by more personal considerations and that reality is not quite all that we would like it to be.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in a lovely and spacious dee-luxe apartment in the sky; it is clear that they do not lack comfort or material wealth. Yet they sleep in separate bedrooms, with Elena’s small bed suggesting servant’s quarters; indeed, it is at first difficult to discern the nature of their relationship until they start talking to each other. Theirs does not seem like a loveless marriage; not exactly. There is some affection there, but mostly it seems a marriage of convenience, or a business transaction with benefits. Zvyagintsev gradually peels away more layers as the extended family dynamic becomes clearer: each spouse has a child from a previous relationship — he a daughter, she a son — and neither parent seems to have much affection for the other’s offspring. The feeling is mutual — Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) sees her stepmother as a low opportunist while Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) regards Vladimir as little more than a slot machine that is failing to pay off as expected.
It is when Elena leaves her home to visit her son and his family that we get a better idea of where she once came from, and just how good she has it now. The relative tranquility of the apartment is stripped away the farther she gets from home, the noise of urban traffic and the unhelpful attitudes of shopkeepers offering a palpably unpleasant contrast to her current upscale position. Sergey and his clan live in a shabby, almost haphazard pile of flats in such close proximity to a nuclear plant that it would seem like a comedic exaggeration were the film set in the United States. Sergey’s son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) is a callow layabout (and the apple didn’t fall far from THAT tree) in danger of being drafted into the military unless his parents can come up with the money to send him to the university he clearly has no interest in and little use for; it isn’t hard to guess where everyone expects that money to come from, and this is the catalyst for a surprising chain of events brought on by an unexpected misfortune. But what is surprising about it is not that it happens, but that it happens so easily, that Elena could set about her task with such calculated efficiency, as though Sergey was not the only one who looked at her husband as an investment. Zvyagintsev, however, seems to imply that his protagonist’s actions do carry a consequence, and much like the economic mess wrought upon us in recent years, the burden of those consequences may fall not on those responsible but upon hapless (and even entirely innocent) bystanders. A dead horse in the road, an unexpected power blackout, the ominous cawing of a crow at seemingly innocuous moments, only serve — like the use of Philip Glass’ Third Symphony on the soundtrack — to increase our quiet horror and sense of dread.
Zvyagintsev, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Oleg Negin, does not let us off the hook with such well-worn Hollywood conventions as hysterical remorse, last-minute justice or deus ex machina payback. The director, to his credit, is determined to place the burden of judgement on the viewer, and it is a far from easy burden to shoulder, especially as we are confronted with the disturbing notion that Elena’s efforts to support her family are, apart from their obvious illegal dimension, not merely misguided but are very probably completely wasted. It is the Wall Street corporate bailouts writ small; perhaps a more cinematic comparison would be the serious half of Woody Allen’s 1989 masterpiece Crimes And Misdemeanors without the minor frenzy of that film’s internal moral debate and hand-wringing. The director gets marvelous performances out of his actors, most particularly Nadezhda Markina and Elena Lyadova, who both bring a cagey sense of pragmatism to their characters; Andrey Smirnov, himself a director, adds real depth and feeling to Vladimir, who could very easily have been a one-note bad guy. But this would be entirely out of line with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s sensibilities and intentions — clearly-defined good guys and bad guys would rob Elena of its moral weight, and the director understands that this weight is necessary to send viewers out of the theater thinking and talking — remember doing that? — about what they’ve just seen. By leaving us holding the intellectual bag, as it were, Zvyagintsev is blowing fresh air into the moral vacuum of the 21st century, and he does so with considerable skill and complete command of his craft. Elena is that rare film that is not just great, but is great in no small part because it is about something.