In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Sheila O'Malley makes the case for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2017: "Loveless." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
“I’ve never loved anyone. Only my mum when I was little, and she’s such an idiot.”
This line encapsulates the pitch-black heart of "Loveless," controversial Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2014 film "Leviathan." "Leviathan" was about a society where corruption was so total the stink of it emanated off the screen. The film got him in hot water with the touchy political establishment in Russia, and "Loveless"—even darker than "Leviathan"—is not about to rebuild any bridges. "Loveless" has the same sense of almost operatic grandeur as "Leviathan," and the same fearlessness in connecting the political environment in the Kremlin to the personal lives of ordinary Russians. The heartless tyranny of Putin's Russia has filtered down.
A 12-year-old boy named Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is caught up in the crosshairs of his parents' marital war. Neither Boris (Alexey Rozin) or Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) reassure their son that even though Mommy and Daddy are fighting it isn't his fault. The aduts are self-consumed and narcissistic. In the second half of the film, Alyosha vanishes into thin air. He heads out to go to school and is never seen again. A huge search-and-rescue party is assembled, and they comb the area, looking in a series of decayed abandoned buildings looming in the surrounding woods. People scream Alyosha's name into the void. No answer. Alyosha's face looms from Missing Person signs, taped up at every bus stop, on every storefront.
The most frightening, evocative shot in the film is of an empty stairwell. Alyosha, melancholy and scared, oppressed and lost, deprived of any sense of agency or "say" in his own life, heads off down the stairs to go to school. He vanishes out of sight. The camera lingers on the empty space he left behind. Even before you know the boy's fate, the shot catches you, pins you to the spot. The empty space is not empty at all. It's filled with the memory of the boy who was just there, a ghostly afterimage of his small vulnerable head.
Zvyagintsev is brutal in his assessment of Russian society. He suggests that the universal disconnection with a coherent or shared sense of the past is a major factor in creating a "loveless" culture. What past are Russians talking about when they talk about the past? Is it czarist? Is it Stalinist? Or earlier Bolshevik? Is it the 1990s and the rise of the oligarchs following the crackup of the Soviet Imperium? Or is it Putin's version of the past? As George Orwell famously wrote in "1984," “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Without a past to rely on, people are cut off from sources of strength, community, fellow feeling. Children are the ultimate victims. Buildings are left to decay, buildings filled with relics, ghosts, incoherent echoes.
"Loveless" is a hopeless film, and in the current atmosphere in Russia, admitting hopelessness is a radical act. "Loveless" is not afraid to call things by their proper names.