Frank Capra would have approved of “The Fool,” a forceful Russian drama in which a lone plumber stands up to a corrupt system on behalf of the people living in a squalid apartment building. With giant cracks running from the foundation to the roof, the crumbling structure could be a metaphor for the country itself, insinuating that decades of embezzling and all-around mismanagement have left things in a precarious state. After playing Cannes with his previous feature, “The Major,” writer-director Yury Bykov delivers another major work, this one even more deserving of international attention, in festivals and commercial venues.
In a city where scarce financial resources are routinely diverted to benefit the bureaucratic fat cats at the top, one man risks upsetting the rickety house of cards to save a commune of ungrateful citizens. When a water pipe bursts in a 38-year-old apartment building, naive young handyman Dima Nikitin (Artem Bystrov) is called in to fix it. Instead, he discovers that after decades of neglect — during which officials rerouted renovation funds into their personal housing projects — the walls are likely to collapse before the day is done.
At first, Dima does what any of his colleagues would, leaving the problem for someone else to solve. (It’s not his district, after all. Why not let his drunken supervisor deal with it in when he sobers up?) But Dima finds that he cannot sleep, and after performing a few alarming calculations, he decides that the building’s 800-plus residents — a mix of deadbeats and addicts, like the loafers who haunt the halls of the Indonesian action movie “The Raid” — will likely perish in a massive cave-in if he doesn’t act immediately.
And so, acting against the objections of his protective wife (Darya Moroz) and nagging mother (Olga Samoshina), the idealistic young man resolves to track down the mayor, Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova), at 2 a.m. on the night of her 50th birthday party — the foolhardy equivalent of trying to confront an agitated lion in its lair. Though she listens with what appears to be genuine concern, Nina didn’t rise to her position by helping others. Rather, she is the most ruthless and jaded player in a hierarchy where corruption runs rampant, and in the end, she will do what she must to protect herself.
While Dima obstinately tries to persuade the mayor and her half-soused department heads — the chiefs of police, fire and other municipal works — to intervene and evacuate the building, Bykov expertly manipulates how we view Nina’s character from one moment to the next. The helmer shows exquisite control of the world he has created, offering Samoshina a role to rival Jacki Weaver’s late-career “Animal Kingdom” breakthrough, even as the actress risks overplaying her hand during a key monologue that indelicately spills everything her character is trying to conceal.
Opposite this shrewd operator, newcomer Bystrov — a hangdog hero whose brown eyes and high cheekbones suggest a young Josh Brolin — is like a deer in the headlights, wholly unprepared for the hellstorm his “shit stirring” is about to unleash. Kafka meets “The Sopranos” as Bykov creates a murky yet absurdist world of deep secrets and unmarked graves, where those who don’t play along can be made to disappear. What use is an honorable man in such a world?
The tragedy at the core of Dima’s foolish crusade is that he’s not looking for accountability — or, as the cynics around him believe, an opportunity for personal advancement — but merely wants to save the lives of the doomed souls endangered by the building’s imminent collapse. Perhaps this futile sense of optimism is what makes him a fool, like his father (Alexander Korshunov), who insists on replacing stolen light bulbs and repairing the bench the neighborhood kids vandalize on a daily basis.
Running just over two hours, the film hammers its themes a bit harder than necessary, spelling everything out through long, heated arguments (e.g. “There’s not enough of the good life to go around”). Despite the urgency Dima sees in the situation, Bykov gives the tense scenario room to breathe, alternating between pensive piano and more insistent electric guitar in an effective, low-key score that he composed himself. In one scene, a pop anthem plays as the determined hero walks from his apartment to the bar where he plans to confront Nina, a choice that may seem excessive to impatient audiences, but actually serves to reinforce his status as this rotten town’s lone conscience. While “The Fool” isn’t exactly a fable, it does serve as a wake-up call of sorts — and one whose relevance needn’t be limited to Russia, either.