Elena (Елена)
Made in: Russia
Language: Russian
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Alexey Rozin, Yelena Lyadova
Year: 2011

Synopsis: In this modern-day drama, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is an aging housewife living with her second husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who happens to be incredibly wealthy.

Vladimir owns an amazing house, drives an impressive Audi, but prefers a quiet life in which he pretty much keeps to himself (and keeps everything he has to himself).

Elena's grown son, Sergei (Alexey Rozin), however, lives in a vastly poorer part of Moscow. Sergei is pretty much an unmotivated slob who has a tired wife, an infant child, and a directionless teenage son. Sergei is also jobless and seems more interested in drinking beer than looking for work.

He relies on support from Elena, who dutifully hands money over to him by cashing out her pension payments. Sergei's teenage son, Sasha, is on track to end up just like his father. Although on the cusp of completing high school, Sasha does not have the grades to get into a university.

His only option is to join the military, which neither he nor his family want. However, Sasha can weasel his way out of that if his parents bribe the proper university officials. Elena implores Vladimir to provide the necessary payments, which he could easily afford. But he stubbornly refuses, and insists on staying out of her family's life.

After suffering a heart attack, Vladimir decides to draft a will. To his wife's dismay, Vladimir states that he plans on leaving the bulk of his estate to his estranged daughter, Katya (Yelena Lyadova). Katya is a cynical, nihilistic soul who doesn't seem to have anything nice to say...about anything. Yet at the same time, she may not be completely beyond redemption.

With Sergei's situation growing more desperate, Elena decides to take drastic action.

The Good: Elena is highly realistic and superbly acted. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a film with a rich, dark undertone aided by Philip Glass's haunting score. Every scene is made powerful either through imposing composition or the capturing of subtle details.

Most memorable are the characters themselves. They are all, to some degree, sympathetic given their circumstances. Yet their various flaws prevent us from identifying a clear side to root for.

This multidimensional portrayal builds a lot of intrigue and tension as the drama unfolds, and the sobering realism effectively maintains an air of neutrality with respect to starkly different social classes.

The Bad: The ending. Or lack thereof. The open-ended nature of the film's conclusion is certainly logical, but I would argue that it doesn't make for a very satisfying film. The story feels terribly incomplete even if it is artistically defensible.

Who would like this film: This is a very slow-paced drama, and is for for you if you're accustomed to watching foreign films. It also helps to be familiar (or somewhat familiar) with the present state of Russian society. Being familiar with Russian reality TV would also be a bonus.

This is not a film that makes shallow arguments about politics or class warfare. Zvyagintsev remains neutral on the matter, electing to show you things that are happening instead of passing judgment (which is left up to you, the viewer).

Despite a great build-up and the potential for an intense film noir-like thriller, the film simply ends. Yes, I suppose one can argue that the deliberate ambiguity reflects the consistent realism throughout the story, and therefore reflects real life. But that won't change the feeling of dissatisfaction that many viewers will no doubt experience.

(2 and 1/2 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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