A Missing Child, A Dying Marriage And A 'Loveless' Society

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 17, 2018 10:05 am

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless -- Russia's submission to this year's Academy Awards, and one of the five movies up for best foreign language film come Oscar night — begins with two parents screaming at each other about their upcoming divorce.

They're trying to sell their apartment, and it quickly becomes clear that their relationship is so toxic they'd probably sell their kid, too, if they could get away with it. Neither of them wants to take care of 12-year-old Aloysha (Matvey Novikov), who's sobbing quietly in the shower as they argue.

They don't see that. We do.

Once the shouting's over, the parents go on with their now-separate lives: Each has a new partner, and their divergent choices suggest just how doomed their marriage was. Dad (Aleksey Rozin) has already shacked up with his pregnant, very traditional Russian girlfriend. Mom (Maryana Spivak) is living what you might call a capitalism-on-steroids life with a rich, older businessman — dining in expensive restaurants, frolicking in his sleek penthouse.

When she gets home that night, she goes to bed without checking on Alyosha; the next morning, seeing his bed empty, she assumes that he's already left for school. Turns out he's long gone.

The police show up, but prove useless. They point the family to a network of volunteers, and soon they're combing forests and an abandoned, decaying Soviet-era complex that looks like something out of Mad Max.

By this point in most movies, Mom and Dad would be working together out of necessity. But that's not the story Loveless wants to tell.

Director Zvyagintsev, who co-wrote the film, is intent on showing how calamity doesn't necessarily unite people — it can push them further apart. As he did in his 2014 film Leviathan, about a land-grab in a small town, he tells what seems to be an intimate story while calling attention to the social forces affecting it: A government bureaucracy that gets in the way when it should be helping; religion hampering; technology misleading; loyalties obstructing.

It's no accident that a character in Loveless is seen in a track suit emblazoned with the word RUSSIA in large block letters, while running-in-place on a treadmill: Effort expended, with no actual progress.

As the parents trek from hospitals to morgues in search of the child they'd once talked of abandoning to an orphanage, news blares in the background about disruptions in Ukraine. What chance, wonders this bleak, devastating film, has any child in a society so loveless?

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's been a lot of Russia in the news today, so let's take a few minutes to hear about a Russian movie. It's called "Loveless," and it's an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. On the surface, it's about a failing marriage and a missing child, but critic Bob Mondello says "Loveless" can also be read as an allegory about Russian society.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Parents screaming at each other about their upcoming divorce...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVELESS")

MARYANA SPIVAK: (As Zhenya, speaking Russian).

MONDELLO: They're selling their apartment, and the relationship is so toxic that if they could, they'd probably sell their kid, too. Neither of them wants to take care of 12-year-old Alyosha. He's sobbing quietly in the shower as they argue. They don't see that. We do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVELESS")

MATVEY NOVIKOV: (As Alyosha, crying).

MONDELLO: Shouting done, the parents go on with their lives. Each has a new partner, and their divergent choices suggest just how doomed their marriage was. Dad's already shacked up with his pregnant, very traditional Russian girlfriend. Mom's living what you might call a capitalism-on-steroids life with a rich, older businessman - expensive restaurants, sleek penthouses.

When she gets home that night, she goes to bed without checking on Alyosha and just assumes the next morning that he's already left for school - turns out he's long gone. The police show up but prove useless. They point the family to a network of volunteers, and soon they're combing forests and an abandoned, decaying Soviet-era complex that looks like something out of "Mad Max."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVELESS")

SPIVAK: (As Zhenya) Alyosha.

MONDELLO: By this point in most movies, mom and dad would be working together out of necessity, but that's not the story "Loveless" wants to tell. Writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev is intent on showing how calamity far from uniting people can push them apart. As he did in "Leviathan" about a land grab in a small town, he tells what seems to be an intimate story while calling attention to the social forces affecting it - government bureaucracy that gets in the way when it should be helping, religion hampering, technology misleading, loyalties obstructing. It's no accident that a character in "Loveless" is seen in a tracksuit emblazoned with the word Russia in large block letters but running in place on a treadmill - effort expended without actual progress.

As the parents trek from hospitals to morgues in search of the child they once talked of abandoning to an orphanage, news blares in the background about disruptions in Ukraine. What chance, wonders this bleak, devastating film, has a 12-year-old in a society so loveless? I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.