Elena (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

film elena_75Elena’s trip, from the luxurious flat she shares with Vladimir to the crowded apartment where her son and his family live, sums up the stark contrasts of post-Soviet Russia.


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Andrey Zvygatintsev’s Elena is a deceptive film that at first seems to be the kind of polished jewel that draws raves from critics and the art-house crowd, and then opens up to reveal itself as a broad critique of Putin’s Russia and corrupting effects of both poverty and wealth on ordinary human values.

The surface story is simple. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a middle-aged nurse who married one of her patients, a significantly older tycoon named Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). It seems to be a relationship of convenience. In the opening scenes, Elena could easily be mistaken for a live-in housekeeper, given that they sleep in separate beds and display no affection for each other. In addition, she displays the solidity and resignation of a peasant inured to her role. Elena and Vladimir seem to have reached a sort of stalemate in their relationship, tolerating each other without having sought or achieved deep understanding.

Neither Elena nor Vladimir have much to brag about in terms of their children. Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (Yelena Lyadova) is an affected hipster who values her father only because he supports her lifestyle, while Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) is unemployed, content to live in a cramped flat and behave abusively toward his wife. Sergey doesn’t even seem concerned that his eldest son, Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), will soon be drafted into the army unless some money is found to ease his way into college. Elena does care, however, and tries to convince Vladimir to make a contribution toward assuring Sasha’s future. However, he rebuffs her, saying it is Sergey’s responsibility to take care of his family.

Everything changes when Vladimir has a heart attack and then, even as Elena is nursing him back to health, announces that he is going to amend his will to leave nearly everything to Katerina. Elena, who has since convinced us that she really does love him, is forced to make a decision that she certainly never contemplated back when she was working on the wards.

There are definite echoes of Mildred Pierce in Elena, particularly the theme of a mother sacrificing herself for a child who really may not be worth it. As the consequences of Elena’s decision play out, you may find yourself wondering not if she was morally justified, but if ethical judgments even have a place in the amoral world of unfettered capitalism.

Elena’s trip, from the luxurious flat she shares with Vladimir to the crowded apartment where her son and his family live, sums up the stark contrasts of post-Soviet Russia. It’s like the title sequence of The Sopranos, but in reverse, as if Tony began in his suburban mansion in North Caldwell and ended up in the vicinity of the Hydro-Pruf factor in Newark. The gap between rich and poor in the new Russia couldn’t be clearer. While Vladimir enjoys ample space, tasteful décor, and all the latest electrical gadgets, Sergey’s flat offers, among other things, graffiti in the hallways, a sporadic electricity supply, and an unobstructed view of the cooling towers of the adjacent nuclear power plant. Given such abrupt differences in circumstance, you have to wonder why anyone in this world even pretends to have values beyond those of getting out of the shadow of the nuclear power plant and into the spacious flat with a big, flat-screen TV.

Elena is beautifully shot by Mikhail Krichman, who’s not afraid to hold a shot or to invoke obvious symbols. The soundtrack is also uncommonly effective, combining a Philip Glass score with long stretches where all you hear are ambient sounds. It’s the kind of film that is slow to reveal its secrets, but amply rewards those with the patience to give it a chance. | Sarah Boslaugh

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