Therein lies a great deal of submerged tension as Elena gives money to her son and his family over Vladimir’s objections. It proves difficult to empathize with Elena who visits Sergey, his wife and their two children. They’re barely getting by but do nothing to change the ugly situation—a cluttered apartment with the television and video games as diversion. Meantime Vladimir provides a lovely, bright but sterile apartment for himself and Elena, whom he met 10 years earlier when she was his nurse in the hospital.
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev absolutely demands and amply rewards patience in this almost two-hour film with about half of the events with only sound effects from on-screen objects or Philip Glass’ score to interrupt the silence. No one explains him or herself, and no direct comments are made about class inequity in the Russian social system. But the tragic reality is clear in the way individuals survive, their souls compromised if not destroyed. Without revealing the fascinating developments in these few characters’ lives, I can say that every detail conveys literal and symbolic meaning, from the lone crow in the opening shot calling from a bare tree outside Elena’s large windows to the claustrophobic framing in Sergey’s dark apartment. No detail is wasted even when little seems to be happening.
As Elena, Nadezhda Markina suggests defeat, determination or something approaching satisfaction with every element of an actor’s arsenal: her eyes, the sag or line of her shoulders, the tension or relaxation of the muscles in her face. She’s compelling and ordinary. The more aristocratic Valdimir, Andrei Smirnov, delivers an equally modulated performance. The other actors are convincing and appropriately appalling.
Elena is a quiet, deliberate study of human behavior in an unsympathetic environment. Its memorable story carries much more impact than the blockbusters that rely on external instead of internal upheaval. In Russian with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.