Andrey Zvyagintsev has yet to fully make good on the promise of his stunning debut on THE RETURN/’03, but this recent pic comes encouragingly close. A despairing, yet somehow vital look at corruption on every level of society in a small northern coastal town in Russia, it’s less cautionary tale than modern Book of Job. There’s even a local Orthodox Priest (also corrupt) to lay out the parable in précis. Zvyagintsev’s masterstroke recasts the biblical story with characters Gogol’s Inspector General would have recognized and, at least for Stateside audiences, following the old vaudeville sketch ‘Pay The Two Dollars’ to its extreme conclusion.* (That’s the one where a guy refuses to pay a small fine on his lawyer’s advice and winds up petitioning his case all the way up to Death Row.) Here, the juggernaut starts with an Eminent Domain battle that’s almost won for a local handyman by an old pal, now a savvy Moscow lawyer. But this being Russia, never underestimate the resilience of officials who are part of the chain of command. Or the complications that come from mixing vast quantities of vodka with an unhappy second wife; an attention-deprived step-son; and a handsome legal advocate. Beautifully paced & acted, Zvyagintsev finds striking locations whether he’s in the mountains or shooting in a bureaucrat’s soulless office building. What’s gone missing since THE RETURN is the way that film’s personal focus shed light on larger societal issues, a design of dramatic action he now works in reverse.
DOUBLE-BILL: Obviously, THE RETURN is a must. But also try Francesco Rosi’s superb HANDS OVER THE CITY/’63 for some Italian land-grabbing political corruption. *ALSO: You can see a classic rendition of ‘Pay the Two Dollars’ with those two well-known Gogol specialists Victor Moore & Edward Arnold in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES/’45. (A hard DVD to find, so, while it lasts, here’s a LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKT8QoboD1g)