With The Fool (Durak), 34-year-old Russian film director Yuri Bykov has officially become his country’s Cassandra.
The New York Timessays the film is about corruption in a squalid Russia. Bykov’s 2014 film is about much more than that. The Fool is an obvious allegory of the rottenness—and coming collapse—of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Dima Nikitin, a plumber, notices that a building occupied by the dregs of society in his hometown has a large crack running from top to bottom and concludes that, since the foundation is shifting and the building is tilting some 10 percent, its collapse is inevitable. He tries to mobilize the city mayor and her council to take action. At first determined to do something, they realize that their theft of state funds has depleted the treasury and made evacuating the building impossible. Besides, there’s no place to put the 800-plus inhabitants. The mayor and one of her advisers then decide to do nothing, hatching a plan to blame any later calamity on the heads of the fire and housing departments. Meanwhile, Dima decides to save the building’s inhabitants on his own. He runs from apartment to apartment shouting that the “building is collapsing.” Once everyone leaves, and the building fails to fall, the people turn on him. The last scene shows him lying in the snow, unconscious or dead.
Needless to say, the building stands for Putin’s Russia. Everybody is on the take—from the people who live in the building to the mayor and her chums to the governor who gets a 50 percent kickback from the city budget. The police chief says, “I’m Russian. How can I not take bribes?” However, Bykov’s central concern is not corruption per se, but its destructive impact on Russia—on the building. “Leave,” Dima’s father tells him, “this place will never change. Never.” Dima tells his wife that “we live and die as swine, because we treat one another as nothing.” The mayor asks Dima when the building will collapse. “It’s already falling,” he replies.
Just like Putin’s regime.
The film reminded me of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, also released in 2014, which depicts one man’s hopeless battle against corrupt city officials in Russia’s North. Not only does he lose. He also loses his wife and best friend and is thrown into jail, to boot.
More important, The Fool is very reminiscent of Little Vera, Vasili Pichul’s 1988 film that depicted the squalor and corruption of late Brezhnev Russia. Some three decades later, nothing has changed. The population lives in misery, while the elite drink champagne. Little Vera presaged the USSR’s collapse.The Fool predicts Russia’s downfall. Whether it’s the country’s or the regime’s, you can decide for yourself.
I hope The Fool gets widely distributed in Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is all too much about the film that applies with equal force to Ukraine. Viewers will have no trouble realizing that both Russia’s and Ukraine’s buildings are in trouble.
There are two key differences, however. Thanks to the Orange and Maidan Revolutions, Ukrainians know they need to fix their home fast. Russians are still in denial. Indeed, Putin seems intent on adding other decrepit buildings to his existing collection, while Russians cheer him on and turn on their Cassandra.
That may be the key difference between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine has hope. Russia is hopeless.