‘The Fool’: A modern propaganda film

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Aug 13th, 2014

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Dima Nitikin is an honest plumber who lives with his wife and son in his parents’ apartment. Studying architecture in his spare time, he’s what you might call ambitious, but not by his mother’s standards. She berates him and his father for refusing to play the system: when all of the neighbours are stealing to improve their meagre situation in life, their family looks stupid as well as miserable for failing to do the same. Father and son show their sense of social responsibility by doggedly repairing the public bench outside their apartment block, even though local kids come and break it every night.

When Dima is called out to examine a burst pipe in another block, he is chilled to discover two giant cracks running up either side of the aging building. Its restoration funds were tucked away in the back pocket of a corrupt official long ago. Realising that the building will collapse within 24 hours, Dima is determined to drag drunken city officials away from the mayor’s birthday party and convince them of the urgency of the situation.

Durak (The Fool, dir. Yury Bikov) is a conventionally well made film, but one with a clearly defined message to deliver about corruption. It’s too didactic, asking the audience to simply absorb the message rather than think for themselves. It’s a film of very little nuance, with characters typed as clearly as in Soviet propaganda films: Dima and his father represent the noble common man trying to save wretched fellow proletarians, while the corrupt and debauched government officials are modern Russia’s equivalent of the evil, fat capitalists.

A couple of the officials, in spite of their corruption, are revealed to have remnants of conscience and morality left in them, but overall the film confirms every russophobic stereotype. The local chief of police delivers a line that damns a whole nation, as he explains that he naturally accepts bribes because he is Russian.

It is particularly interesting to see how the film’s female characters are  divided into black-and-white categories, unfortunately none of them heroic. They are restricted to either victims or villains. The victims appear in the film’s opening scene: a drunkard’s wife and daughter who receive a violent beating. Dima’s own mother and wife effectively fall into the category of villains: Dima’s morality considers them corrupt at heart because they put their own family’s needs ahead of everyone else’s.

The film treats Dima’s mother with dismissive derision, and Dima gives his wife a sanctimonious dressing down when she’s reluctant to let him pursue his quest to the very end–an understandable reaction on her part, since the family is under threat of extreme repercussions. At the beginning, the father and son are sympathetic enough–holy fools who stick to their moral code even in the face of ridicule and hardship. But by the end of the film, Dima seems to take himself for a modern Jesus. Even if we agree with Dima’s principles, he’s too insufferably self-righteous to be sympathetic.

We don’t really need a film to tell us that corruption is bad. But if this film contains one revelation, it’s in the way that it places corruption on a continuum of selfishness and greed. In the filmmaker’s view, these faults characterise most of Russian society, but the audience may come to consider that selfishness and greed are also a threat in less corrupt countries. From the petty theft of the common people to the huge sums stolen by government officials, characters in this film are opportunistic and dishonest because they lack a sense of responsibility to the rest of society, which they perceive as endemically unjust. Similarly, the corrupt officials’ self-justification, that it’s better for a few people to be rich than for everyone to be poor, is chillingly similar in spirit to arguments in favour of unregulated capitalism, which say that the freedom to make money is so important, it’s preferable for resources to become concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than everyone having enough.

The Fool is in competition at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it makes its international premiere.

 

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