The Fool (2014) – A Searing, Complex Morality Play

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

The Fool (2014), Movie Poster, Durak, Russia
The Fool (2014) By Yuriy Bykov
Many of the contemporary film-makers around the world, making independent features on class-based conflicts & corruption withhold a common narrative thread: a central character gets punished for doing the ‘right’ thing. We are repeatedly seeing films that reflect the reality of our own societies, where the greedy and vilely corrupted creatures are awarded, while the righteous deeds are spit at. In such a corrupted-to-the-bone system, there can’t be any godly messiahs, let alone the good men. And, when people start putting up with a cancerous system they would only decry at the antidotes. Since ‘rules are not for rulers’, we are all just a bunch of nobodies; a statistical number only used by politicians to get their ‘cutbacks’. Russian film-maker Yuri Bykov’s righteous-fury-inciting third feature-film “The Fool” (aka ‘Durak’, 2014) speaks on the danger of possessing positive virtues in a cynical society. The young Russian in the film called Dima Nikitin (Artyom Bystrov), a plumber working at the lower position in Public Utilities Sector, is an antidote to his society’s ‘thought-cancer’. He thinks that working hard, having a good education, playing by the rules, and doing the right thing would take him up the societal ladder, which is actually infested with filthy rats and poisonous snakes. He believes that ‘no good deed goes unrewarded’. “Oh, you fool! You idiot!” seems to say the film’s narrative trajectory, silently changing the statement to, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.  

“The Fool” opens with a static shot of the cramped corridor of a rundown apartment. A tattooed, shirtless, bulky guy walks into the frame and argues with his poor wife about the money he has stashed (for drinking) that’s now missing. The scene escalates to the guy brutally beating his wife and daughter, which comes to an end with the bursting of a water pipe. Back at home, Dima, the idealist, has an intense conversation with his mother. Father, Dima’s wife, and Dima's little son Anton are the dinner-table spectators. She worries about her son’s honesty, which was what caused her husband – Dima’s father – to bemoan at the prospect of taking bribes. Although she talks in a furious tone, her worry seems rational, since their family of hard-workers had to scrape for money to fix the leaky pipes, while the ‘normal’ neighbors steal pipes from the warehouse. She fears that her son’s honesty would eventual lead to his destruction. Unable to take her rants, Dima and his father scoot away from the dinner table. Soon, Dima gets a call to look into the pipe bursts in the rundown communal house complex. The chief engineer is on a bender and so Dima must attend to the call.
The big, crumbling communal housing complex in 'The Fool' that stands as obvious symbol for the ruined societal values
The big, crumbling communal housing complex in 'The Fool' that stands as obvious symbol for the ruined societal values
Dima examines the pipe bursts and gradually realizes that this huge apartment block with at least 800 residents is going to collapse sometime in the near future. He thinks about talking about this problem, the next day, to his superior Fedotov (Boris Nevzorov), an grumpy old man who has amassed all the money allocated for building repairs. Dima goes back to his house and wakes up in the middle of the night, switches on his computer to look at some calculations. It is close to 2 am and Dima decides to meet some one higher up in the system to state the fact that the building is going to collapse within 24 hours. Since he is studying construction college course, he strictly believes in those calculations. Through his mother’s contact at mayor office, Dima decides to visit the town’s mayor Nina Galaganova aka ‘mama’ (Natalya Surkova), who is at a lavish party, celebrating her 50th birthday. She and her rich department heads are engulfed by booze when Dima pushes through his grim findings.  She stumbles from the flashy dance floor and calls up for an urgent cabinet meeting. Nina looks disturbed by what Dima is saying. She really seems dedicated to save the 800 plus residents, even though she wonders how those residents will be resettled, considering the town’s lack of housing facilities. First, she sends out Fedotov with Dima to analyze the situation. When Fedotov confirms the bad news, a wave of mutual recrimination starts on who’s responsible for this fiasco. Nevertheless, the question is “Will they save these poor, lost people (by ‘lost’ I mean the drug-addicted, violent individuals)?” And more acidic is the next question director Bykov poses to us “Are these poor, lost people even worth the trouble”?

Director Yuri Bykov’s subject matter in “The Fool” would make viewers draw comparisons with fellow Russian film-maker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s examination of oligarchy in his last two films – “Elena” and “Leviathan”. However, I don’t think it’s not a right kind of comparison. While Zvyagintsev gives ample space to his viewers to profoundly interpret on the chosen subject matter, Bykov’s style is more didactic and his metaphors are a bit on-the-nose. The unbridled tone of righteous anger we find in Bykov’s film reminds us of the works of the late Alexei Balabanov (another highly original Russian film-maker). Bykov’s visual and narrative style is bent on making the audiences to fully get the issues he is talking about. “The Fool” is a call to action to Russian people or to any societies with rotten social values. The didacticism isn’t diffused in large doses as there are little spaces to reflect on the profundity of each scenario. If we can take in some melodrama and the intentionally drab color palettes, we could savor many crisp observations.
An unforgettable moment from the film's last scene as Dima pursues for a moral solution
An unforgettable moment from the film's last scene as Dima pursues for a moral solution
It is obvious that the huge crack that runs from the ground floor to ninth floor in the buildings is a metaphor for unstable Russian state. The residents of the nine floor building serve as the microcosm for the nation’s increasing lower class people. The residents comprised of drug-abusing teens, violent, alcoholic men, ignored pensioners, and silent hard-working wives are trapped in their places, thanks to the crumbling state-nation. The whole films unfurls in three spaces: the dingy  council houses where the people live a shoddy life; compared to that Dima’s own small apartment seems warm; and then Dima’s quest takes him to a sparse, glitzy buildings, where ultimate degeneracy thrives. Dima faces barrier on both sides of the polarized society, shutting their ears to his holy truths. Dima faces barriers even within his house as the mother (a retired doctor) calls him a fool for harboring noble ideals. Our movie experience becomes increasingly maddening as these barriers stubbornly stay up, despite a lot of haranguing tactics of Dima. Perhaps, the biggest strength of “The Fool” is the adept characterization. There are no easy categorizations like mirthful, sympathetic ‘poor’ and monstrous ‘rich’. Director Bykov’s doesn’t construct his narrative as an unceasing conflict between the rich and the poor. The narrative rather indicts the government policies that make us all live like the animals. In this nonredeemable corrupted system, everyone below blames the person above and vice-versa. In this never-ending cycle of accusations, what’s glossed over are the deaths of innocent and suffocation of truth. Bykov’s characters, especially that of Mayor Nina and Dima’s wife, comments on our increasing inability to act with moral clarity. 

Director Bykov forges immediate connection with the viewers through Dima Nikitin. Although the people around him (except for the well-meaning father) repeatedly use the term ‘fool’, we believe in him to right the wrongs. We feel that he is making the right choices and as we gradually walk through the degenerate spaces alongside our protagonist, we too get embroiled with cynicism, wondering whether Dima is making the ‘right’ choices. Not only we ask ourselves, ‘if this guy is sure about the fate of the building?’ we slowly start to think that ‘he is a fool for pursuing like that’. The well-crafted scenarios constantly kick upon our senses to totally forget the prospect of redemption and pray to not fall further into the stinking abyss. By the ending, we are most interested in Dima’s survival than hoping to see him do what his conscience demands. While there are many on-the-face messages spread over the narrative, this is where Bykov shows apt amount of subtlety. He seems to be asking the significant question many morality tales fail to address: “Will one’s strong sense of morality eventually provide a moral solution?” It’s also where the inherent Russianness of the film transcends to be something universal experience (we all have propensity for little moral compromises). The performances elevate the hardened realism of the situation. I immensely liked the performance of Surkova as the maternal mayor, who flawlessly uses modulations to convey the shifts between a bureaucrat’s mellifluous, vulnerable, as well as perilous imposing nature. Sokurov’s sorrowful monologue about corruption only makes her villainy all the more powerful. Actor Bystrov makes us care for Dima till the last without ever heavy-handedly conveying the character’s morality.
Dima Nikitin sits at the centre among affluent men, scheming together to save their names from the upcoming apartment fiasco
Dima Nikitin sits at the centre among affluent men, scheming together to save their names from the upcoming apartment fiasco
“The Fool” aka “Durak” (116 minutes) is a strong conversation piece on the nature of a corrupted society that promotes casual lack of human empathy. The film’s themes would transcend language and country barriers to think about the depravity seeping in our very own society.  A country needs a rude awakening when its citizens address their most compassionate as ‘The Fool’. 

Rating: 7.5/10

About Author - 

Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.

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The Fool (2014) Trailer (YouTube)

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