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14 November 2018

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The Major and The Fool

Two movies, written and directed by Yury Bykov

Winter. A phone rings. A light turns on in a tall apartment block on the city’s outskirts. Sergei’s wife is in labor in Ryazan. He rushes off to the maternity hospital.

But he is not careful. He is reckless in fact. He speeds. There is a boy and his mother at a bus stop. Ice. A horrific accident.

Panic ensues. The accident is Sergei’s fault. He has taken a life. He wants justice to be done. He wants to go to jail.

But there is a problem. Sergei is a police major, and admitting a mistake will give others an opportunity for score settling. As his superior officer (the esteemed actor Boris Nevzorov) says, “Don’t complicate things for yourself or others.”

Nonetheless, Sergei insists on acting against his personal interest, while the other cops try to cover things up for him in the worst way possible. The calamity grows in size, which only seems to strengthen Sergey’s backbone.

The Major is a tense, well-acted, well-written drama about a decent man trying to opt out of a corrupt system. The brooding Denis Shvedov is convincing and powerful in the lead role, and writer/director Bykov is despicable as his cowardly, corrupt colleague Pavel Korshunov – a role that earned him a Nika (Russia’s top film award) for Best Supporting Actor.

The film’s grim, starkly horizontal, rural backdrop adds an element of bleak hopelessness that serves to magnify Sergey’s dilemma, well summarized by Tolya, a police colleague: “We’re all people, until we cross the line.”

Whereas in The Major, the story begins with a tragedy, in The Fool, the tragedy looms over the film, tensely and ominously, ready to strike at any moment.

Dima (Artyom Bystrov) is a young plumber in a provincial city. He has discovered that a run-down dormitory on the outskirts is about to collapse. He cannot be silent; he must do the right thing. And, after all, there are 800 people living in the dormitory.

So, over his family’s objections, like the “fool” he is, Dima crashes the mayor’s birthday party to deliver the bad news. Yet, no surprise, it turns out the reason the building is collapsing, the reason it has not been fixed, is that all the city bosses have been stealing from the budget for years, greasing the next guy’s palms, sending kickbacks up the line. So nothing is left for the city’s dormitories, much less for its roads, the orphanages, the hospitals or pensions. Or to resettle 800 people out of a collapsing building.

There is an exquisite tension at the heart of The Fool, because we know that building is going to fall – it’s a nine-story Chekhovian gun revealed in the first act that must eventually be fired. But, instead of taking action, the pit of vipers that surrounds the mayor only wants to cover their backsides. They toy with doing the right thing, but are caught in a trap of their own making: as in The Major, doing the right thing will expose their decades of thieving.

“Yes, I take a little of every deal,” the mayor says, “But whose hands here are clean?” An aide amplifies her sentiment: “The whole country lives on bribes... If you don’t take some for yourself, you live like a worm in s**t.” And another: “I am a Russian, I cannot not take.”

The film is filled with uncomfortable indictments of Russia political culture, and the fact that it won a Nika for best screenplay speaks to the fact that the accusations hit the mark.

To say more would reveal spoilers. But suffice it to say this is not a movie to watch if you want to come away with a warm and fuzzy feeling about Mother Russia or one’s fellow man. Bykov’s corrupt, dilapidated town is a depressing, dead-end place – a house of cards bound together by corruption and selfishness. If a “fool” tries to fix even a portion of it, he risks tearing asunder everything he knows and loves. But the caring has to start with someone. As Dima says near the film’s end, “We live like animals and die like animals, because we are nothing to one another.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2016