An intense, vicious screed against political corruption aimed directly at the rotten heart of the Russian government.
The Fool (ND/NF Review)
Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool is a scathing, immediate film, a vicious screed against political corruption aimed directly at the rotten heart of Russia’s government. The opening sequence, where a man living in a run down apartment bursts a bathroom pipe while brutally beating his wife, doesn’t waste a nanosecond in letting viewers know they’re in for an intense experience.
After the shocking opening, the film cuts to Dima (Artyom Bystrov), a city plumber and engineering student. He lives at home with his wife, child and parents, barely scraping by as he tries to earn enough qualifications to take over his current boss’ job once he graduates. A riveting dinner sequence with Dima and his family quickly reveals the film’s major themes. It turns out the titular fool happens to be Dima himself, except Dima isn’t a dumb person. What makes him foolish, according to his cynical mother, is his morality. Trying to be an honourable person in a world without honour is a fool’s errand, so there’s no point holding on to ethics if it gets you nowhere. When Dima’s mother complains about their apartment’s bad pipes, pointing out that their neighbours have new ones, Dima’s father tells her that’s only because the neighbours stole them. “So drown here in your righteousness, then,” she responds. It’s a cutting scene, and only a hint of what’s to come.
The opening with the burst pipe is the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. Dima gets called to go fix the pipe late at night, as it’s in a low-income apartment owned by the government. He checks out the damage, but upon arriving discovers an even bigger problem; a giant crack in the building’s load-bearing wall and a crumbling foundation. He goes home, hoping to assess the problem the next day, but finds himself jolting out of sleep once he realizes the problem is bigger than he imagined. After making some calculations, he comes to a horrifying conclusion: it’s almost certain that the building will collapse in less than 24 hours.
The crisis kicks the film into high-gear, as Dima frantically tries to find a way to save the 800+ people residing in the building. He tries his boss, only to find out he’s been pocketing the money meant for renovating the place for years. He decides to go straight to the mayor, but his wife pleads for him not to go. “If they didn’t care about that building for 30 years, why would they start now?” she asks, but Dima doesn’t heed her warning. He heads out to see Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova), the town’s mayor, who’s coincidentally celebrating her 50th birthday on the same night. Dima crashes the party, alerting her about the issue and prompting the mayor to gather her staff in a private room at her birthday party.
It’s in this meeting that Dima realizes his wife and mother have been right all along. The entire city council is corrupt, and now their hands are tied. They don’t have the money to replace the current building, and relocating the tenants is impossible considering the city already has a housing shortage. Bykov’s script and direction are flawless in this sequence, as with each passing moment the severity of the situation ramps up the intensity. Bykov achieves this by making his film a view from the bottom up, taking Dima’s morally righteous perspective and watching it quickly crumble as the cruel, selfish nature of those in power begin scheming for a solution that will maintain their status quo.
Watching Dima’s attempt to do good, knowing how things will probably turn out, becomes incredibly involving and tragic as the film continues into its last act. Bystrov does an amazing job as the noble protagonist, giving him an everyman quality making it impossible to not root for him to succeed. But it might just be Surkova who steals the show as Mayor Galaganova; she adds plenty of depth to what could have been a one-note villain, portraying Nina as someone seriously conflicted about weighing her own survival against those below her social status (Bykov throws in several hints of Nina coming from a low-class family herself, a suggestion that Surkova runs with in her performance). It doesn’t come as a big surprise once Nina makes her choice, but that doesn’t make watching it all unfold any less powerful. Bykov’s penchant for having his characters to spout off about his themes of greed, corruption and politics with no sense of nuance does grate at times – especially when it’s combined with the sometimes heavy-handed score – but it’s forgivable given the urgency of the situation. It also benefits the film in some ways, since allowing the characters the ability to speak so directly gives Bykov’s work a much stronger bite. The Fool isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here with its story of a just man against an unjust world, but it’s a damn good example of a familiar tale that hasn’t lost an ounce of its power.