Fall of the House of Putin

It can't end like that, can it? Yury Bykov's impressively bleak drama of bureaucracy, expedience and the expendability of the poor seems to surge toward a finale that is both inevitable and impossible. The story, gutsy and wrenching, concerns a Russian plumber who susses out that a housing project in which some 800 people live will almost certainly collapse in a day or two. The film, Bykov's third and best, is set in the parody of capitalism that is the new Russia. Since it's in a grim realist mode, dwelling on domestic violence and the ravages of poverty, you'll likely expect that it can't possibly end well—that the forces that first stacked the poor up in that crumbling cinderblock won't profit from their being sprung from it.

Evidence supporting this expectation: The local powers that be warned by that plumber don't just begrudge the expense and inconvenience of relocating residents. Having pocketed years' worth of government money for repairs, they're covering up their own culpability in the complex's rotting. The great cracks in the building's façade, stretching from the foundation right up to the roof, may as well be cracks in Russian life itself. (No doubt about it: Bykov is blunt and hammering and so on-the-nose that the nose is smashed and bleeding. But sometimes that's what it takes.)

But everything's complicated by that title card proclaiming The Fool was completed with the aid of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. Everything we know about the land of Putin tells us that The Fool must end in catastrophe, with it being more convenient for the poor to be killed than for government officials' corruption to be exposed. But everything else we know about Putin's Russia tells us that its Ministry of Culture would never let that ending out into the world. As in many great films from Iran or China, the tension here is twofold: Will the system in which the film was made compromise the truth of that story?

Here's a spoiler for this brave and extraordinary work of fabulistic social realism: The answer to that last question is no. If anything, The Fool goes further in its indictment than audiences might be willing to follow. It's easy to cheer an attack on a system that punishes the poor and impoverishes them more, but Bykov is unsparing in his depictions of that system's victims. The men of that housing project tend to be fists-first bruisers, the women helpless and embittered—and, with some despair, the film finds those traits in most of its characters, flush or broke.

Much of the film transpires in and on top of the building. Dima (Artem Bystrov), the regular-guy plumber, dashes through the hallways, showing officials the damage but trying not to upset the residents, a sorry population of drunks and addicts wary of anyone who seems to have some power. Bykov makes a telling contrast between the fleet, you-are-there photography of Dima's trips through the complex and an extended sequence at a party of the local swells and bureaucrats responsible for the looming tragedy. In a banquet hall of white tablecloths, thumping bass and drunken profiteers, Dima beseeches Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova)—the mayor of this small, unnamed town—to take action to save these lives. After much skepticism, Nina agrees, only to then confront the truth of what that action might cost her: not just potential exposure and criminal proceedings, but the chance that she will no longer be one of Russia's haves—that she might be reduced to living like the people whose existence now depends on her. Surkova's performance is a marvel of anguish and realpolitik, and it's the heart of the film. Bykov's morality tale is clear-eyed and callused over, worrying not over individual lives, but over a nation's soul. Its chief question, though, should resonate with anyone enjoying anything more than subsistence-level living: How much suffering will you accept to keep you from being one of them?

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