Leviathan, The Fool and Child 44: Film Troika

“There’s No Murder in Paradise” – Child 44


I just watched the new commercial film Child 44, based on the book of the same name, and realized that between its recent predecessors Leviathan and The Fool, there’s a consistent message about Russia running through the current cinematic forest. All three are brutal, brilliant and baffling.


LeviathanI saw Andre Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan at the Cedar Lee in Cleveland Heights. It was the only theater in the 216 that screened the Oscar-nominated movie. The story’s middle-aged protagonist, Kolya, (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in his country home with his young wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son from a previous relationship. The home, while nothing fancy, is part of his family’s legacy and its strategic location, on the banks of the Barents Sea in northern Russia, makes it a prime target for a corporate takeover. The corporation wants to build a resort and the government, of course, is in on the deal.


Leviathan begins with Kolya in court, listening to the court official declare the property under foreclosure. Kolya hires his friend Dmitriy (Roman Madyanov), the young and ambitious Moscow lawyer, to handle the case. Dmitriy’s arrogance thinks he can take on government, specifically the city’s mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Quickly, Kolya’s life, whatever little he thinks he has, begins to unravel. A giant biblical sea creature, the Merriam Webster also defines Leviathan as, “the political state; especially: a totalitarian state having a vast bureaucracy.” Has anything in post-CCCP Russia ever truly changed? Not psychologically. The end of the film is nothing short of heartbreak.


The Fool

Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool (Durak), which I saw the CIFF, and which won the George Gund III Memorial Central and Eastern European Film Competition Prize at the end of the Festival, is similar in message and in theme. The story also takes place in current times and our hero is Dima (Artyom Bystrov), a young plumber and architecture student who is married and has a toddler son. The family lives in a room in his parents’ tiny apartment.


In the middle of the night, Dima gets called to fix a broken pipe in a local public housing building. Upon a closer view he notices a huge crack leading from the ground floor all the way to the top. (Not a subtle metaphor.) He also sees pieces of the building fall off. He does the math and realizes that the building is going to fall, possibly that night, and take all of the residents with it. The 800 tenants? Gambling alcoholics, wife and child abusers, teenage drug users and a handful of desperate families trying to survive. These are people post-communism forgot.


He asks his mother – a dominant figure who early on insults her husband for playing it straight and for not being a thief and a cheat like their other friends who have advanced their lives though nefarious means – for the contact info of one of her acquaintances, the town’s mayor Nina Galaganova (Natalyia Surkova). The minute he walks into a Russian restaurant where Nina is celebrating her birthday, surrounded by all her powerful political cronies, dressed in fine threads and expensive jewelry and getting blitzed on vodka while goring on caviar, we see the Upstairs/Downstairs contrast. While Dima eventually convinces the resistant decision makers (and dacha owners) to do an inspection, this specific building begins to reveal everyone who was on the take with it to begin with. The cars these people drive tell us everything. By the time the film ends, we understand its title and ask, “Was Dima the fool? Or has post-1989 Russia fooled everyone?”


Child 44Unlike Leviathan and The Fool, which are acted in Russian with English subtitles and take place in the present, Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44, based on the books of the same name (Tom Rob Smith wrote the novel and co-wrote the script with Richard Price) is a historical piece and is acted in English. The all-star international cast reunites The Dark Knight Rises‘ Tom Hardy in the lead as Leo and Gary Oldman as General Mikhail Nesterov. It also stars Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the original) as Leo’s wife Raisa. And we recognize Vincent Cassel from Ocean’s Twelve, as Leo’s boss, Major Kuzmin.


The film opens with Leo as a little boy, still unnamed, who escapes an orphanage during the 1930s. We then see him rise to victory in the Soviet Army during WWII. In the early 1950s his life seems full of promise: a climbing government military position, a large apartment, a beautiful wife and a best friend. But this is Stalin’s Soviet Russia, when one knock on the door changes your life forever.


When Raisa is suspected as being a traitor, he has a choice to make: turn her in and only one person loses their life, or stay loyal in which case 4 people will lose theirs. After talking with his parents, he picks the latter, right after his best friend’s son is found dead. The report states the boy died in a tragic train accident, but Leo knows better. Soon reports of others dead boys, all from accidents, begin to surface. And it is only half way into the film and when Leo and Raisa take the train into the forced labor camp and after they meet Nesterov, that the true story begins: the murder mystery of the child serial killer.


There’s an early scene in Child 44 that is highly reminiscent of the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds: the humble, young and beautiful family in the country that suddenly receives a violent visit from men in uniform. The soldiers accuse the family of harboring a fugitive – Trotsky, played by Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, also with Oldman). There’s another scene in the film, where Oldman visits a library and begins to gather images of all the children that perished from “accidental death” that is reminiscent of a similar scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And like Basterds and Tattoo, there’s a strong cultural commentary about how war and geography shape people. All the while deep inside we know that we the people drive that war.


Unlike Leviathan and The Fool, Child 44 ends on a positive note. Positive compared with the other two films. Completely tragic once we realize the big picture and the message of the story, of all three stories. The republics once belonging to the FSU (Former Soviet Union) still live and breathe the psychology of the KGB. The damage Stalin waged, while rarely discussed in American history books, was just as damaging as Hitler’s. The difference? Hitler murdered his own people. Bottom line, when given the choice between valuing the individual and the State, the State always wins. The people who bribed and killed their way into the State will destroy anything and anyone that alters that power equilibrium. It’s why Russia has just banned Child 44 from its theaters. This comes on the heels of the February execution of Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s critic, symbolically shot near the steps of the Kremlin. Just a few days ago, on April 16, Ukraine murdered pro-Russian journalist Oles Buzyna in my birth city, Kiev.


“There’s No Murder in Paradise” opens Child 44 and is quoted twice more in the film. Russia is no paradise. No place on this violent earth is. These three films do, however, expose what the FSU has done to so many of its citizens, crippling their souls into corruption or hopelessness. Or both. These specific stories are the Troika Bell, alarming those that are open to see the mentality and reality of one war-torn part of this world.


Sergei Eisenstein first did it with Battleship Potemkin in 1925.  Ninety years later, we’re still watching the same movie.


Leviathan, Child 44: IMDb.com

The Fool: clevelandfilm.org/films


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *