The most powerful moment in any movie I’ve seen this year occurs roughly 10 minutes into “Loveless,” an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film from the extraordinary Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. A divorcing couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are arguing bitterly in the apartment they share with their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). The fight is over custody, but with a catch: Neither parent wants to care for the boy. Zhenya is involved with a wealthy older man and is looking to sell the apartment; Boris has a young and very pregnant girlfriend. The rancorous back-and-forth suddenly cuts to a very brief shot of little Alyosha, soundlessly weeping and fearful. He has been listening to the fight behind a door.
We barely get to know Alyosha before he vanishes from the movie. His unexplained disappearance is first noted by his school authorities and not by his mother, who spent the previous day with her lover. The crisis brings together Zhenya and Boris, but only in more rancor and recrimination. They are enraged by their own feelings of blame and guilt and, perhaps, also by the dawning realization that, on a deeper level, the loss of Alyosha absolves them from caring for him.
This is Zvyagintsev’s fifth feature. Like his most celebrated earlier movies, “The Return” (2003), which was about a father who returns to his wife and two sons after a mysterious 12-year absence, and “Leviathan” (2014), about a corrupt rural mayor who forces a family from their home, it can be approached as both domestic drama and allegory. Set in 2012, in suburban Moscow, the missing-boy scenario is periodically interrupted by televised news reports about conflicts in Ukraine. The sense of apocalyptic doom pervading this movie is felt on both a political and a personal scale. Alyosha, with his pugnacious, beseeching face, is not only a lost boy: In the movie’s terms, he also represents the loss of something spiritually significant in modern Russia, which, as portrayed by Zvyagintsev and his co-writer, Oleg Negin, looks ghastly and grayed out.
The police, believing they are dealing with nothing more alarming than a truant, are of no great help in locating Alyosha. It is left to a well-organized band of volunteers, who tack up posters and fan out across the surrounding wooded terrain, to attempt his recovery. It is dispiriting to note that their mobilization has become second nature: There are so many lost children in the city that one of the first places the volunteers check is an abandoned building where runaways seek shelter.
Zvyagintsev has always been wildly ambitious, sometimes to a fault, and “Loveless” is perhaps his most encompassing indictment of Russian society. Not all of the indicting is equally successful. Those TV bulletins about Ukraine, for example, are too on the nose. He is most effective when the political and the personal are seamlessly conjoined – when we see, for example, how the graspingness of modern society is perfectly reflected in the formidably selfish Zhenya, a beauty salon owner who seems epoxied to her mobile phone and cares only for material gain. Her connection to her rich lover, who affectionately calls her “the most beautiful monster in the world,” is the height of cynicism. And then there is Boris, who works as a middle manager. He is terrified that his ultra-religious boss, who requires his employees to be married with kids, will discover his divorce. (Boris seems less concerned about the revelation of Alyosha’s disappearance.)
Is the vast comfortlessness of this film’s view of Russia justified? The Soviet era, which is what modern Russia, with its capitalist oligarchs, broke away from, was not, after all, the good old days. (This film could not have been made in that era.) The imposed bleakness in “Loveless” can seem overly coercive. Nowhere, it seems, is there a safe harbor. Even the volunteers with the search party aren’t blameless: They won’t explore the nearby lake because they draw the line at dredging bodies.
When Alyosha’s parents visit Zhenya’s mother (Natalya Potapova) in the hope that the boy fled there, it’s almost comically awful to discover that the old lady is even more venomous than Zhenya. (Boris calls her “Stalin in a skirt.”) This, at least, helps explain why Zhenya is the way she is – she, too, was an unwanted child.
Zvyagintsev would have done better, I think, to include more of the beauty that has gone out of this world, if only to heighten its loss. Grade: B+ (Rated R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language, and a brief disturbing image.)