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Elena (A Movie Review)



ELENA (2011)

Starring Nadezhda Markina, Andrei Smirnov, Elena Lyadova, Alexey Rozin and Igor Ogurtsov.

Screenplay by Oleg Negin and Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films.  109 minutes.  Not Rated.

Elena is a quietly devastating little film.

Quiet is the operative word.  This subtle Russian film doesn’t have a word of dialogue for the first seven minutes and not a conversation until over 10 minutes in.  In many scenes director Andrei Zvyagintsev trusts his story and his audience enough to just focus on characters silently going about their lives and not feeling the need to explain everything.

This is helped by the fact that Zvyagintsev has found some abnormally empathetic actors, particularly Nadezhda Markina, who plays the title role.  Elena does not say much, but she communicates volumes just in her actions and her facial expressions.

Elena is a former nurse in her late 50s.  She has recently remarried Vladimir, a man who is probably at least a decade older than she is.  It almost seems a bit of a marriage of convenience.  They don’t talk that much, and they sleep separately. She takes care of him, cooks for him, cleans and gives him his medicine.  He is well off, so she gets to live in his beautiful apartment and enjoy some of the finer things – a state that she has never really achieved previously.  However, she isn’t a gold-digger, she does not really take advantage of her new opulence.

There is not much passion here, but periodically you do pick up on a genuine affection and kinship.  It’s sort of what love becomes when the attraction and sex goes away.

One thing they do have in common is problem children.  Elena’s son is unemployed, has a wife and a college-aged son, a baby and another one on the way.  He drinks too much, is dismissive of his wife and mother and isn’t really looking for work.

Vladimir’s daughter is estranged as well.  A bit of a neurotic trust fund baby, she does whatever she can to shock her staid dad – sex, drugs, drinking, smoking, self-mutilation – but while she blames her dad for her problems she does have an odd kinship with him as well.  A scene where she visits him at the hospital ends up being surprisingly heartfelt for these two distant characters.

The crossroads for Elena and Vladimir comes when her grandson’s bad grades make it impossible for him to get a scholarship for University.  Unless they can pay for him to go to school, the boy will be forced into the military.

Vladimir understands the problem and considers it for Elena’s sake, but in the end he feels that he should not be paying for the boy, the boy’s father should.  Truthfully, he has a bit of a point – Elena’s son is a lazy freeloader and her grandson is a bit of a punk.  Even Elena sees this… to a degree… but they are family and in the end she will do whatever she can for them, right or wrong.

Thus a woman who has spent her entire life serving others is forced into a moral crossroads.

Unlike most American films, Elena luxuriates in the moral conundrum it has created, sharing the muted confusion and desperation that normal people often experience.  It does not judge – most of the people here are genuinely good souls with good intentions who are pushed into extraordinary circumstances.  The characters who are shown in a less flattering light – and there are a few – still feed into the conundrum.  In fact, they add depth and irony to the actions of the others.

Elena becomes an eye-opening and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of how circumstance can eventually change a human’s nature.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: May 25, 2012.

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