Starring: Nadezhda Markina, Elena Lyadova, Andrey Smirnov and Alexey Rozin.
Distributor: Palace Films
Runtime: 109 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2012
Back in the days of perestroika and glasnost and up to the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was producing masterly films that combined politics and poetry in extraordinary ways.
Some of these films made their way to art house cinemas worldwide via festivals, and include such revelatory masterpieces as the surreal political parable Repentance, Dolly (Kukolka) about an alienated teenage gymnast, and Little Vera, Russia’s first punk movie.
As the old totalitarian regime crumbled to dust, these films were followed by more introverted, esoteric works such as Freeze Die Come to Life, and the ground-breaking oeuvre of Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son, Moloch, Russian Ark).
Now comes Elena, the most commanding work so far from Andrey Zvyagintsev, who in 2003 won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for The Return. It follows hot on the heels of the brief release in Australia of Aleksey Fedorchenko’s acclaimed Silent Souls. But it is Elena that most captures the imagination and demands attention.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a former medical worker married to a well-off businessman, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). They live in a lush city apartment that sets them apart from the hoi polloi who cannot afford luxuries and live in cramped, often squalid conditions in old Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Elena has not always been so fortunate. Married before, she has a son who cannot or will not find work to support his family, and is constantly being importuned by him to provide material support for his growing family, in particular his angry, unambitious school-age son.
Vladimir too has a child from a previous marriage, a daughter who is clever, rebellious and nihilistic, but who at heart loves her father deeply.
Now a housewife, Elena loves Vladimir and feels grateful to him for legitimising their long term relationship through marriage. But when Vladimir is suddenly taken ill and circumstances change, she feels pushed to make ruthless decisions to protect her family.
Elena continues the great tradition in Russian cinema of seamlessly merging cinematic poetry with and politics. Perhaps as a legacy of the impact the great Tarkovsky has had on Russian cinema, Elena begins slowly, in almost real time, with the screen lightening as if by sunrise to reveal first one crow on the branch of a tree outside an apartment window, then two. Just as mysteriously, we see a table with one chair through the apartment window, then two chairs, then three.
What these powerful images represent by way of an introduction into the lives of the two people, Elena and Vladimir, who live in the apartment is not easily expressed in words, and this singular feature, repeated throughout the film, of life’s mysteries jostling cheek by jowl with primal instincts and harsh economic realities, poetry mingled with politics in the broadest sense, is what makes Elena such exciting and essential viewing.
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