Summer movie season usually means “big” — big blockbusters, big sequels, big action sequences. But the summer also brings with it a wealth of smaller art house films, and a great one from Russia will be arriving in New York on Wednesday before making its way across the rest of the country over the next few months. It’s called “Elena,” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In its own intimate way, it’s rather epic.
The film tells the story of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a matronly woman in her 60s who’s a couple years into her marriage to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich man she met when she was his nurse. They both have children from previous marriages, but they live alone in his impressive, chilly Moscow apartment, sleeping in separate bedrooms. Not the most vibrant of lives, to be sure, but things could always be worse.
Elena doesn’t require much from her husband — in some ways, she’s still his nurse — but one day she comes to him asking a favor. Her adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) has a family of his own, and they don’t have nearly the financial resources that Vladimir has. (Partly it’s because Sergey is a bum, but Elena loves him anyway.) Elena asks Vladimir if he’d be willing to give Sergey’s teen son the money he needs for college. Vladimir refuses, contemptuous of Sergey’s laziness and unconcerned about his plight. Dutiful Elena obeys — it’s not like she has the money herself — and has to decide how else she can help her son.
Elena’s eventual plan, sparked by a surprising visit from Vladimir’s scornful daughter, shouldn’t be spoiled so as not to diminish its shock value. Even more unexpected, though, is how comfortable Elena becomes with her unlikely scheme once she goes about completing it. But what’s most powerful about “Elena” is how, really, the movie’s twists aren’t twists at all. Without ever realizing it, we recognize that all along we knew what Elena was going to do, even if we didn’t quite want to believe it.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (who previously made the gripping father-son drama “The Return”) specializes in slow, thoughtful dramas in which his characters’ true nature takes time to be revealed. With that in mind, one could almost approach “Elena” as a mystery, watching the characters’ actions for clues into what they might be capable of doing. Making it all the more intriguing, Zvyagintsev never really shows his hand about where his sympathies lie. Elena is a loving, loyal caretaker of her older husband, but is she right to be upset with Vladimir when her son really is a layabout? Even if Vladimir is right about her son, shouldn’t he still show compassion to those less fortunate than he? As “Elena” enters darker waters in its second half, these questions continue to reverberate — along with other, more upsetting ones — and Zvyagintsev doesn’t provide answers.
In his homeland, Zvyagintsev has become known as a chronicler of the state of modern Russia with its economic inequality and generational divides. But one needn’t know a thing about Russian politics to see that “Elena” is actually a distressingly universal tale of haves and have-nots, not to mention an apt reminder that morality and ethics can be slippery propositions when other interests drive us. More often than not, we go to the movies to escape the realities of normal life: Up on the screen, the good guys vanquish evil at a comfortingly consistent rate. Such certainties don’t exist in “Elena,” particularly because nobody in the movie would consider him or herself evil. These moral ambiguities are not always easy for an audience, nor are they easy for a filmmaker and his cast to execute. But in this case, they do beautifully. Even days after seeing “Elena,” I’m not sure how to feel about any of the characters, which I consider the highest compliment. Life isn’t simple. To capture it in all its complexity, “Elena” is heroic.