By Joanne Sargent, Observer contributor
The first thing you need to know is that Loveless is a difficult film to watch. It’s the story of a Russian couple’s marriage that’s been a war zone and their son,12-year-old Alyosha, the collateral damage.
Zhenya and Boris are separated and in the middle of a brutal divorce, at the end of a toxic and, yes, loveless marriage that began with an unwanted pregnancy.
It is an incredibly sad portrait of a child unloved by his selfish parents, neither of whom wants to be saddled with him as they move on to new relationships, and he knows it.
Interestingly, the boy is barely shown in the film at all, although one single shot of the distraught, weeping child hiding behind the parents’ bedroom door as they argue is so memorably shattering it haunts you through the entire film and beyond. The director chooses to centre the story on the parents’ nasty entanglement, and the new lovers they have hooked up with.
After one of his parents’ particularly hate-filled exchanges, where they discuss sending him to an orphanage/boarding school, Alyosha (nickname Alexey) disappears. Sadly, and underscoring what terrible parents they’ve been, they don’t even notice he’s gone—it’s the school that alerts them that he hasn’t been there for two days. They finally report the boy missing, but a broken police system offers little help. They leave the search to a group of volunteers, who turn out to be the few people with any heart in the whole movie, as they selflessly search day and night for the child. You might suspect that the unthinkable horror of their son being missing might bring his parents together, but, instead, their mutual loathing just intensifies. They’re supposed to be heartbroken, but in reality they consider the disappearance a rather fortunate event.
As the search continues through the inhospitable Russian landscape, the couple is alerted to news from hospitals and morgues, and boys dead and alive are reported and followed up on. The ordeal is long and arduous. Although Alyosha’s computer is inspected, his best friend reveals their secret hideaway and his grandmother (who is a piece of work herself) has been visited for clues, the boy is not found. The writer/director, Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan), chooses not to bring a solution to the mystery of his disappearance, but rather an open ending that can be interpreted in different ways. He, instead, offers his commentary on modern life in Russia and its warped spiritual and moral values. Zvyaginstev has been criticized in Russia for his relentlessly grim portraits of life there.
The content makes it hard to heartily recommend Loveless, but it is a powerful, profound movie, superbly performed and beautifully, if drearily, shot.
It was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
It’s rated 14-A for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, violence and a brief disturbing image. As Jeannette Catsoulis of the NY Times says, “it’s rated R for putting an icy fist around your heart and squeezing.”
Loveless shows Saturday April 21 at 5 p.m. at the Salmar Classic Theatre. It is subtitled.