There’s a scene at the very end of “Loveless,”
Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s
new film, that could be seen to firmly rebut
any notion that the movie has no political
agenda.

The camera pans around an apartment
where Zhenya, the female lead, now lives
with her new boyfriend following a fractious
divorce. On television, Dmitry Kiselyov,
Russia’s notorious media propagandist and
TV presenter, is discussing the Battle of
Debaltseve, one of the most fiercely fought
offensives in the ongoing conflict in eastern
Ukraine. As Zhenya walks out onto the
balcony, the camera zooms in on the word
“Russia” on her Bosco tracksuit and lingers
there before fading to black.

This ending is somewhat unexpected,
given that the movie is on the surface a harrowing
domestic drama. The previous two
hours are devoted to exploring the relationship
between Zhenya and her husband Boris,
who are in the process of an acrimonious
divorce when their 12-year-old son vanishes.

When confronted about this controversial
final shot, Zvyagintsev merely responded
that this particular brand serves as a time
signifier, since Bosco sportswear was particularly
popular during and after the Sochi Winter
Olympics in 2014 (the company designed
the official Russian team kit).

Nonetheless, for Zvyagintsev it will be
difficult to escape accusations that the film
has a political subtext, given the explorations of the amorality and social ills of
contemporary Russia that characterized
his previous two movies “Leviathan” and
“Elena.”

In the Oscar-nominated “Leviathan,” he
painted a bleak portrait of provincial corruption,
alcoholism and one man’s futile
struggle against the state machinery in
an ambitious retelling of the Book of Job. “Elena,” while smaller in scope, was no less
forgiving in its depiction of a society that has
lost its sense of right and wrong in the moral
vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet
Union.

Unsurprisingly, such a conscious focus on
the ills of the country cuts close to the bone
for many Russians. Even before the release
of “Loveless,” Russian-language social media
was full of statements like: “Never watched
Zvyagintsev’s films and don’t intend to.” The
critics have also been divided, with some, like
Anton Dolin of Meduza, praising the movie’s
timeliness and depiction of civil society,
while others, like Konstantin Milchin, chief
editor of literary website Gorky, blaming
Zvyagintsev for “hating homo sapiens as a
genus.”

The controversy surrounding Zvyagintsev
and his works is one of the reasons “Loveless”
was filmed with zero financial support from
the government.

“The Minister [of Culture Vladimir Medinsky]
still recalls “Leviathan” so often and
with such ‘warmth’ that I didn’t want to
cause him any trouble again,” jokes Alexander
Rodnyansky, producer of Zvyagintsev’s
last three movies. “We wanted to let Andrei
[Zvyagintsev] make the movie he wanted to
make. It’s a matter of principle for me,” he
added.

“Loveless” has already won over the critics,
winning the jury prize at Cannes, one
of the top awards at the festival. The rights have been bought by distributors from most
countries, so people outside Russia will soon
be able to see the film.

Unlike “Leviathan,” the new cast doesn’t
include any stars. For Maryana Spivak, who
plays Zhenya, it’s her first role in cinema, although
regular visitors to Moscow’s Satirikon
theater will easily recognize her face. Alexei
Rozin, who plays Boris, Zhenya’s estranged
husband, also appeared in “Elena” and “Leviathan,”
but hardly anywhere else. Boris’
lover is played by Marina Vasilyeva, famous
for her role in “Name Me,” a 2014 favorite at
art-house festivals.

Possibly the only positive character in the
movie is not a person, but an organization.
The search and rescue volunteers that help
the couple to look for their kid were based on
a real-life organization, Liza Alert. In “Loveless”
the volunteers’ organization serves as
a substitute for the government authorities,
which are unwilling to help search for Boris
and Zhenya’s lost son.

Like “Leviathan,” the film uses specific
timestamps to anchor the action in a recent
period of Russian history. In the first
minutes of the movie we hear a radio host
talking about Barack Obama’s second election
campaign and it becomes clear that it
is October 2012. The closing scene, with the
mention of Debaltseve, places the end of the
movie in February 2015.

Regarding the controversial final shots,
Zvyagintsev says he had not thought of any
alternative endings: “Any other ending won’t
work or will only work for the benefit of the
viewer who could breath out before the final
title sequence, calm down and say “Thank
God, everything’s all right.”

A movie that stays with you long after
you’ve watched it, “Loveless” encourages
reflection on your own fate and place in the
world.

“We made this movie so that the viewer
goes home and embraces his loved ones,”
says Zvyagintsev, adding that it doesn’t matter
what happens to the characters after the
film: “There’s a black screen and titles start
and after that everything is happening to the
viewer.”

“That’s the objective—that the movie gets
into the viewer’s heart, his consciousness,
his soul. The movie is just an excuse to think
about oneself. What we see on the screen
are only shadows, shadows of our fears, our
doubts, our dreams.”