The Fool (2014) — Image via

The Fool

Directed by Yuriy Bykov (2014)

Everyone is corrupt, nothing will ever change, and the only way to live a “normal life” is to steal whatever you can and look the other way when others do the same. That’s what everyone seems to believe in the world of Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool (Durak) — everyone, that is, except the film’s protagonist, Dima (Artyom Bystrov), who conducts a quixotic struggle against the reigning paradigm of indifference in his small Russian city.

Dima, a building repair crew chief who lives with his wife and young son in his parents’ apartment, has inherited an aversion to theft and dishonesty from his father (Aleksandr Korshunov). But unlike the older man, who is merely regarded by his neighbors as an oddball, Dima has ambitions, which ultimately makes him more of a threat. He is studying to be a construction engineer, and he stubbornly insists on earning his degree through study and hard work alone, without paying any bribes. In the meantime, he is committed to doing his job conscientiously — a commitment that sets the film’s action in motion.

The Fool (2014) — Image via trigon-film.orgOne night, when responding to a call about a burst pipe at a Soviet-era social housing block, Dima makes an alarming discovery: two huge cracks running up the entire height of the building. On further inspection, he sees that the building’s foundation is crumbling and that it has a tilt of 10 degrees. At first, he simply resolves to tell his superiors about this, but after some late-night calculations, he realizes that the building of more than 800 residents is certain to fall, probably within a day. This sends him on a quest to alert the city’s mayor, Nina (Natalya Surkova), who happens to be celebrating her 50th birthday at a local restaurant the same night.

The Fool (2014) — Image via trigon-film.orgWhen Dima confronts Nina with the news, she quickly assembles all of her department chiefs, most of whom at least initially take the matter seriously and seem genuinely concerned about the potentially massive loss of life. However, as their discussions continue, the bigger concern that emerges among them is how the impending building collapse will affect all of their corrupt schemes to divert public money — including the money that was supposed to be used to repair the building — to themselves and their families. Furthermore, over time, it becomes clear that Nina, despite all her formal power and her formidable force of will, is not really in charge. As the plot unfolds, we watch as both Nina and Dima are forced to choose between what they know is right and what will allow them to continue living their lives as they have planned them.

The Fool (2014) — Image via trigon-film.orgBoth of these characters are, as it turns out, open to a number of different interpretations. Other commentators have described Dima as a naïve idealist and Nina as a crafty villain, but to me, neither of them is quite as black and white as all that. When Nina learns that the building is going to collapse, her first instinct is that, without a doubt, something must be done. Only after she is forced to process the situation via the extremely distorted state of power relations in her city do her humanitarian impulses come into question. Meanwhile, Dima does not seem terribly surprised when his efforts run into resistance, putting him and his family in danger. He is not ignorant of how things are done in his city; he just wants to have done the right thing.

Indeed, probably The Fool‘s biggest weakness is its ambivalent approach to the question of whether the system’s endemic filth and corruption can ever be eliminated. It is notable that the film both opens and closes with scenes demonstrating the violent degeneracy of the people Dima is trying to save, unfortunately lending some credibility to all the people who try to tell him that they are not worth saving.

In any case, despite this qualm, The Fool proves to be a gripping thriller featuring strong performances by the two leads, especially Surkova. After a first screening Friday afternoon, it screens again Sunday evening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.