Yuriy Bykov continues to emerge as one of Russia’s foremost young filmmakers with The Fool, a morally upright class drama set within a culture that rewards corruption and greed and punishes the honorable and decent. As evinced in his previous work, Bykov treats his narratives like well-oiled machines, the action constantly churning even when things seem uneventful. Some of the film’s most charged sequences are nothing more than conversations. Cramped kitchens in rundown apartment units, glitzy banquet halls filled with sloshed bureaucrats, and the squalid hallways of a crumbling housing project become battlegrounds of emotional discourse, the plot advancing through subtle character turns and surprising story revelations that deepen the director’s cogent social commentary.
Dima (Artem Bystrov) is a young plumber and municipal repair chief living in an unnamed Russian town said to be not even 40 years old, though the dilapidated buildings and general squalor of the area suggest it’s suffered centuries of neglect. One night, a pipe bursts in the town’s most destitute communal housing complex, revealing severe structural damage that threatens to destroy the entire building in less than 24 hours. Fascinatingly reminiscent of Jan De Bont’s Speed, the film essentially becomes a race against the clock, a tightly wound potboiler that uses time as an incendiary agent, and this is partly what makes the drawn-out conversations so tense. Desperate to evacuate the building’s 800 residents, Dima crashes the 50th birthday party of Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova), the town’s mayor, to mobilize the proper authorities, the majority of whom are also at the party, piss-drunk and not in the mood to discuss work, even at the expense of human lives. This is the director’s way of contrasting the garish life of the ruling class from the shoddy life lived by everyone else, but it’s also a maddening barrier that keeps our hero from saving the day, a wry invention that truly adheres to the notion of a political thriller.
Like any great action hero, Bystrov brings a tremendous amount of sympathy to his character, and Surkova utilizes the modulations of her mellifluous voice and shifts in her imposing stature to deeply convey how the imperious mayor’s air of authority is slowly drained as the story progresses. Drunk on power as much as vodka, Nina initially rebukes Dima’s fervent requests with almost comic-book villainy, dismissing the people in the building as trash and worthless and emena, but the more people he gets on his side, the more she acquiesces, revealing her hands are as tied as anyone else’s and blaming a mulishly corrupt system that leads all the way to the top. Indeed, The Fool is aggressively anti-Putin, a seething indictment of the Soviet-era policies invading a country filled with citizens still suffering from and fighting against Boris Yeltsin’s kleptocracy.
Such heavy-handed proselytization occasionally bogs down the film’s fleet pacing, but Bykov manages to get things back on track quickly, weaving his commentary into his deft characterizations. Like those in a Frank Capra film, the characters in The Fool are prone to saying exactly what’s on their minds, often speaking in blunt sentiments—“There just isn’t enough of the good life to go around!”—that probably sound hammy on the page, but have a noble, classically melodramatic charm when delivered by the cast. But he doesn’t let the actors do all the talking, as Bykov’s images say just as much. The film takes place entirely at night, and the dingy color palette, washed-out and intentionally drab, presents Russia as an almost alien landscape, covered in dirty snow and basked in nuclear-orange streetlights. Long takes and a probing handheld camera place the viewer directly in the line of conversational fire, the director’s way of ensuring the issues discussed don’t simply remain on the screen. The Fool is a call to action, one whose significance relates to more than just Russian society.