[Marxism] More on "Elena"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 16 11:39:59 MDT 2012

NY Times May 11, 2012
Evolving Russia Finds a Recorder of Its Moment


EVER since he won the grand prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival 
for his stunning film debut, “The Return,” an allegorical tale of 
father-son relations tinged with mystery, Andrei Zvyagintsev has 
been hailed as the heir to the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.

Now with “Elena,” his taut and starkly realistic third film that 
is also a mystical parable, Mr. Zvyagintsev is being described as 
a seer of the social and spiritual divides in Vladimir V. Putin’s 

Shot in 2010 and released here last fall, “Elena” seemed to 
capture the mood that led to mass protests against Mr. Putin and 
Russia’s entrenched bureaucrats after charges of widespread 
electoral fraud in December’s parliamentary elections.

“We all are rotten seeds,” says the most cynical character in 
“Elena,” Katerina, who is paradoxically the only character honest 
with herself and others and who shows glimmers of redemption.

“Moral questions are being set aside,” Mr. Zvyagintsev said in an 
interview last month in his sleek office in central Moscow, 
reflecting on Russia and accusations by critics, intellectuals and 
general audiences that his film defames Russians by portraying 
them in a negative light. “New values are being articulated.”

“One has to be blind not to see this,” he said.

Mr. Zvyagintsev is wary of directly criticizing Mr. Putin, the 
newly re-elected president, or those who supported him on the way 
to the March 4 vote. But the filmmaker did attend an anti-Putin 
rally in December and talked about it on an opposition television 
channel. And the sense that he views life — and the Russian 
condition — as a series of moral challenges is apparent in his 
films and in conversation.

“A person who is in art can speak of politics through art,” he said.

“Elena,” shown as part of the Certain Regard section at Cannes 
last year, was honored with a special jury prize there, and Mr. 
Zvyagintsev took home the best director award at the Nika film 
awards in Russia last month. But “Elena” was pushed out of 
contention last year for Russia’s Oscar entry for best 
foreign-language film in place of “Citadel,” the final installment 
of a trilogy about the Stalin era and World War II. “Citadel” was 
directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who presides like a czar over 
Russia’s film world.

Americans can see what the controversy was about when “Elena” has 
its premiere in the United States on Wednesday at Film Forum. 
BAMcinématek will offer a sneak preview on Monday as part of its 
Next Director series. Also screening as part of the series are 
“Apocryphya,” Mr. Zvyagintsev’s entry in the anthology film “New 
York, I Love You,” which was not included in its theatrical 
release; “The Banishment,” his 2007 film that was not released in 
the United States; and “The Return.”

“Elena” is set unmistakably in today’s Moscow. The tacky talk 
shows and dating games that fill TV screens here are a recurrent 

On the surface the socioeconomic lines could not be more clearly 
drawn: the film cuts between Moscow’s most elite neighborhood, 
near the Kremlin, and the industrial sprawl and crumbling 
Soviet-era housing on its outskirts, where credit cards are still 
regarded as something alien.

Elena — in her 50s, dutiful and taciturn — lives with her older, 
much richer husband, who shows her little affection but appears to 
depend on her. They are played by the stately Nadezhda Markina and 
Andrei Smirnov, veteran Russian actors, and their relationship 
speaks volumes about alienation, exploitation and attraction.

Elena’s sole purpose in life, one that represents many Russian 
women, is to support her adult son, Sergey. Unemployed, with a 
family that includes a teenager who needs to be bought out of 
impending military service, he lives off his mother with no 
qualms. Her husband, Vladimir, also supports his own wayward 
daughter, Katerina, from a previous marriage. But once he insists 
that Elena’s family — and especially her son — take responsibility 
for their lives, the long-suffering and religious Elena snaps.

Mr. Zvyagintsev is a youthful-looking 48, a fashionably dressed 
and soft-spoken father of four. But he links his Siberian 
background and impoverished days as a young actor in Moscow to the 
harsher realities of Russian life today, and he chafes at 
suggestions that the portrayal of Elena’s poor relations is 
exaggerated and insulting.

“When people say this is a caricature, I say this is me,” he said. 
“We didn’t have to go to Biryulyovo” — a reference to a 
working-class neighborhood in the film — “to study people there. 
It’s me and my friends. Maybe I’m not so close to oligarchs.”

“Elena” is permeated with the sense that people can live side by 
side for years and be divided. Mr. Zvyagintsev said the idea of 
overriding disconnection between people was the basis of his 
original vision for the film in 2009. It began as a script by Mr. 
Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin for a British producer who wanted an 
international lineup to make films revolving around the idea of 
apocalypse. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s contribution was supposed to be in 
English, with characters named Helen and Richard.

The apocalypse project fell through, and Mr. Zvyagintsev 
translated the script to a Russian setting. Russian reviewers last 
fall noted that he had conveyed the sense of impending doom in 
Russia — “moral catastrophe” as he describes it — but the film, 
with no direct political references, cleared the censors on 
Rossiya, one of two main state television channels, and was 
broadcast during prime time last November. But in theatrical 
release in Russia, where American blockbusters dominate, “Elena” 
pulled in just over 100,000 viewers, fewer than it drew in France.

In late April, at a Moscow art gallery holding an exhibition about 
Tarkovsky, Mr. Zvyagintsev presented his favorite Tarkovsky film, 
“Andrei Rublev,” about the Russian religious iconographer. Amid 
depictions of feudal Russia, it examined the role of the artist 
and the meaning of faith.

Mr. Zvyagintsev deflected accusations that he imitates Tarkovsky, 
saying that it was impossible not to be inspired by him. The next 
day, “Rublev” still on his mind, Mr. Zvyagintsev mused about 
Russia. “We are a feudal society,” he said, “with a slavish 
mentality. I don’t think we can ever change this until our entire 
world order changes. We need to have many new generations born in 

Yulia Taranova contributed reporting.

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