In the cinema of Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia has been spiritually and morally dead for so long that all arguments to the contrary are just putting make-up on the corpse.
Zvyagintsev’s films are bleakly powerful and made with a majestic control of technique, and they all lean toward the allegorical to one degree or another. “The Return” (2003) felt carved out of patriarchal myth, while “Leviathan” (2014), which was nominated for a foreign language Oscar, was such a damning portrait of national rot that it was condemned by Vladimir Putin’s minister of culture.
“Loveless,” which was also nominated for the foreign language Oscar (it lost to Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman”), seems on the face of it to be one of Zvyagintsev’s simplest and saddest stories, but it widens in the mind like ripples spreading out from a body dumped in a lake. We’re in a prosperous Moscow neighborhood, where an apartment is being shown to prospective buyers; the married couple who owns it is getting a divorce.
In short order, we come to understand that both Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are miserable people, selfish, bitter, and defeated. Boris has a pregnant young girlfriend (Marina Vasileva) and the betrayal has loosed his wife’s fury, which he absorbs with self-pitying silence. There’s a 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), naive and pale as a saint, whom neither parent wants custody of and who weeps the tears of the bereft when he realizes this.
Early in “Loveless,” Alexey vanishes, and the rest of the film recounts his parents’ efforts to find him, first grudgingly and then with a gradually awakening panic. At first the panic doesn’t stem from what may have happened to him so much as what has become of them. The movie’s about two people — and, by extension, the culture and country of which they’re a part — confronting the fact that they’re no longer recognizably human.
So, no, it’s not a Saturday night date movie (unless your tastes run to Gogol), but it is two hours spent in the care of a filmmaking master, an artist who may share the pessimism toward our species of, say, Michael Haneke (“Amour,” “The White Ribbon”) but whose emotional palette has room for fondness, sorrow, and a quiet sort of rage. “Loveless” tags along behind Alexey’s parents and waits for them to care for their child as much as we already do.
Their interactions along the way serve as a modest cross-section of Russian society. The police have no illusions about what can happen to children in this world — one gravel-voiced cop tells Boris and Zhenya “You know how it is; the parents kill the kid and then report him as missing,” as if this were a daily occurrence. A visit to Zhenya’s mother (Natalya Potapova) reveals a vicious old battle-ax marinating in her own delusional narrative of martyrdom.
Zhenya has hooked up with an older man of wealth (Andris Kriss) while Boris plans for his new family; both hope to jettison a past that their son has come to symbolize. There’s quite a bit of love-making in “Loveless” but, per the title, not much emotional intimacy. Sex in this movie is what we do with other people to feel better about ourselves.
It’s with relief, then, that we meet Ivan (Aleksey Fateev), the no-nonsense head of a volunteer search organization; suddenly we’re in the hands of people who’ve made it their job to care. “Loveless” acquires urgency and a moral compass, and in their company Boris and Zhenya start to as well. You can see the awareness come on in their eyes and, under that, the shame.
Zvyagintsev leads them (and us) toward a greater sorrow, one that’s shared rather than nursed in private, and he remains committed to the mystery at the heart of things. Will anything at last crack Boris and Zhenya’s composure and leave them staring into the mirror of their own monstrousness? “Loveless” can only hope. In the cosmology of its maker, despair is the only sign we’re still alive.
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Written by Zvyagintsev and Ole Negin. Starring Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 127 minutes. R (strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language, a brief disturbing image). In Russian, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.