LOVELESS (Nelyubov). Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Andris Keiss, and Marina Vasilyeva. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong sex scenes). 127 min.
This Russian film tells the story of the disappearance of a young 12 yr. old child, who has been traumatised by the marriage breakdown of his parents. The film was shot in and around Moscow, and won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. It was voted as one of the top five Foreign Language Films of 2017 by The National Board of Review.
Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is the only child of two desperately unhappy people. His mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), and father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are caught in a “loveless” marriage. They are in the final stages of a bitter divorce, and fight with each other constantly, and one of their bitterest arguments is about who will take custody of their child. Alyosha feels unloved, and unwanted, and knows he is a burden on them both. His parents have formed new relationships, that are intensely physical. Zhenya is partner to a wealthy, older man, Anton (Andris Keiss), and Boris is partner to a young woman, Masha (Marina Vasilyeva), who is pregnant with his child. When his parents are home together, Alyosha hears every fighting word between them.
Zhenya comes home late one night and realises in the morning that her son has disappeared, and hasn’t been home since the day before. The Police think that Alyosha has simply run away and will return in a day or so. He does not return, and a volunteer group goes in search of him. Tense at what has happened, Boris and Zhenya break out in fresh fighting. Later, they go to a morgue to discover that a child who was found is not their own, and posters are put all over town giving the identity of their missing child. Boris moves in with Masha, and Zhenya moves in with Anton, but their new relationships show developing tensions. The film ends by showing us the branches of a tree swaying in the wind near a river bank, with a strip of tape that once belonged to Alyosha.
The film is a dramatic depiction of a family in crisis that is searing in intensity. It offers a cultural look at modern life in Russia, rather than a political one, and it tackles complex issues, such as how a so-called advanced society fails to reinforce social bonding. Zhenya is addicted to her smart phone; the Police are too short-staffed to do any checking; and families simply pass on their conflicts to the next generation. The film communicates compellingly how civilians in Russia are unhappy with their government, but it unnervingly explores the tragedy of a family in crisis. Its cinematography is cold, and unforgiving, and the acting is superb. The camera captures a child unseen by his bickering parents, silently screaming. The film communicates tellingly and movingly how people waste their lives by losing moral purpose in a Society that is not perceived as a caring one - a group of volunteers eventually go looking for the missing child, not a group set up by the Police, who are too bureaucratic to provide help when needed.
The wrenching performances in this film remind one of the dramatic intensity of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973). So real is the bitterness of Zhenya and Boris, with Aloyosha caught between them, that Boris and Zhenya show no humanity in the way they interact with each other and treat their son. This not a movie about a lost boy, so much as a film about a child who is abandoned by parents who fail completely to provide him with love. The background of the film suggests a world in turmoil, and encroaching wars, but the human crisis is always kept up front. Instead of bringing the parents closer together, the loss of their son increases their unhappiness with each other. They are angered and frustrated by the knowledge that they have little hope of finding their son, unless they join forces together. The film communicates the feeling that Aloyosha has “vanished” well before he was ever reported “missing”.
This is a film that attacks the complacency of what family life can become, if it is allowed to do so, and it shows brilliantly what can result when moral duty is ignored. The film gives a sobering lesson on how “not” to parent, particularly in an environment, as Zvyagintsev depicts it, that is burdened with an officialdom, which shows no soul.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Limited Release, April 26th., 2018