LOVELESS/ NELYUBOV,  Russia, 2017. Starring Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Marina Vasili. Directed by Andrey Zyagintsev. 127 minutes. Rated M.

With a title like “Loveless”, audiences would not necessarily be expecting a cheerful entertainment. And, since the film comes from Russia, that might be another indication for very serious themes and treatment. And for those who know the films of the director, Andrey Zyagintsev (The Return, Banishment, Elena, Leviathan), they would appreciate that for 15 years he has been looking very seriously at a Russian society, the post-Soviet era and the transition from totalitarian socialism to the impact of capitalism and individualism in society and, especially in this case, in the family.

The film opens and closes with beautifully bleak fixed camera gazing at forests, lakes, snow – and then the glimpsing of high-rise buildings in the background. We are in a Russian provincial city, the usual location for Zyagintsev’s films. After this invitation to contemplation and reflection, the camera gazes at a building – then doors suddenly burst open, children running out from school, and a focus on one young 12-year-old, walking solitary, finding a long piece of material and tossing it up into a tree branch. This is Aleksey who is then seen at home, doing his homework, finding prospective buyers of the family apartment inspecting. His parents are divorcing. We can see that he is angry, even resentful.

This is compounded when we see his mother and father and the audience is made observers, unwilling participants, in their constant and loud, bitter bickering – with a boy outside the door, weeping.

The film then spends quite an amount of time building up the characters of the mother and father, and the terrible flaws in those characters. There seems to be nothing redemptive about the mother, resenting her marriage, her unexpected pregnancy, her wanting to have an abortion, especially with her harsh mother’s advice, her husband persuading her against it, her feeling her life has been ruined, that she deserves some happiness and comfort – and is willing for her husband to take custody of the son whom she resents. The father, on the other hand, seems a milder character, says that he wants his son to stay with his mother because she is the better nurturing parent for him at that age. She disagrees, saying a father is better for the son.

The next step is to find that each of them is in a new relationship. This is a threat to the father because his company, with leaders who take more fundamentalist Christian approach to morals, does not tolerate divorce. He has also taken up with a young woman, a rather clingy woman who is long-term pregnant. On the other hand, the mother is in a relationship with an older man, wealthy, divorced, with adult children.

While the parents might have forgotten their son, the audience has not. Then the news comes that he has disappeared.

The bulk of the rest of the film is concerned with the details of the search for the boy – rather intense, perhaps a bit long for many audiences who might find this section somewhat drawn out. There are volunteers for the search, groups combing through the woods, calling out the boy’s name, searching a warehouse and basement, printing posters to be put around the city…

There is some suspense, of course, as to whether the boy will be found. And we are made privy to the reactions of mother and father, still some bickering between them, going to the boy’s grandmother who is a severe and condemnatory woman.

In fact, with the atmosphere of the film, it is a microcosm of Russian society, and, of course, a microcosm of world society showing its self-centredness. A pervading atmosphere of lovelessness.

Oscar nominee for 2017, a powerful portrait, depressing and challenging.

Palace                                    Released April 19th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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