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Too Russian? For Russian lawmakers, Oscar-hopeful 'Leviathan' stings

The tale of a man crushed by an omnipotent, corrupt state is a leading contender for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But its unrelenting, bleak critique of modern Russian life has irked politicians.

Ivan Burnyashev/Reuters
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev poses at the Russian premiere of his film 'Leviathan' in Moscow on Jan. 28.

"Leviathan," a controversial film by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, may have garnered a bouquet of international awards – and may yet earn a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this Sunday. But it's triggered acrimonious debate at home over its unrelentingly bleak depiction of corruption, state omnipotence, public cynicism, and private despair in a small Russian town.

The film's central theme is a universal one, about a plucky little guy standing up to powerful forces bent on crushing him. But its similarity to Hollywood offerings ends there. The locale – a crumbling fishing village amid the eerie beauty of the Barents Sea – as well as the key characters, their struggles, and their depressing fates, are quintessentially Russian.

And though "Leviathan" seldom is overtly political, no one on either side of the angry discussion it has touched off doubts that the movie is anything but a searing indictment of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"This is a loathsome film. It depicts [Russian] life as gloomy and hopeless," says Vitaly Milonov, a conservative St. Petersburg lawmaker. "The fact that it's up for an Oscar doesn't mean it's a good film. Zvyaginstev just pours mud on everything; he's a person who hates everything about Russia."

But Irina Kopeyko, a Moscow student, says "Leviathan" touched her deeply. "I don't suppose happy people will like it," she says. "I know there are people who never faced cruelty or injustice in their life, and they'll just think this is too depressing. But it shocked me to the core. I know what it's about. Life can even be much worse than that."

A tale of corruption

Russia's Ministry of Culture, which helped fund "Leviathan," has since walked back its support and threatened to impose new rules to impede the production of such films. Bureaucratic opposition may also be behind state television's decision not to broadcast the Oscars live this year, despite the fact that a Russian production is among the top nominees for best foreign film – a relatively rare occurrence.

"I find it extremely odd that among the many characters in this film, there is not a single attractive one," Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky told journalists last month. 

"Leviathan's" ambivalent hero is Kolya, an auto mechanic who lives with his wife and teenage son in a rambling wooden house by the seashore, amid the bones of beached whales and the rotting skeletons of old fishing boats. The town's venal mayor, who is clearly plugged into the country's power system and has the backing of the local Orthodox bishop, has arranged to expropriate Kolya's property for a pittance in order to build a country club.

That verdict is delivered to Kolya first by a judge reading out the relevant legal statutes in a staccato voice, and then by the mayor himself who, in a drunken, late-night visit to Kolya's home, crudely threatens him.

Kolya's defender is an old Army buddy, Dima, now a high-powered Moscow lawyer. Dima believes in the supremacy of law and, as he puts it, "facts," but his method for dealing with the mayor is to blackmail him with a dossier of "dirt" he has dug up, and by suggesting he has the backing of powerful forces in Moscow.

Initially, Dima's strategy works. The mayor is terrified that bad publicity might wreck his chances for reelection.

Ironically, that suggestion – that Putin's Russia is in fact different from previous Russian states, in that officials must win popular consent – has been turned into another argument against the film. Mr. Medinsky, the culture minister, complained that the film insults Russian voters.

"Movies that not only focus on criticism of the current authorities but openly spit on them (which, by the way, shows disrespect toward the taxpayers’ choices), filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness over our existence, should not be financed with taxpayers’ money," he said.

However, the mayor, after meeting with his police chief, judge, and prosecutor, and receiving a pep talk from the bishop, hits on a traditional way to deal with Dima's challenge – a terrifying physical threat that sends the lawyer scrambling to get on the next train to Moscow. Meanwhile, Kolya's life is unraveling in a downward spiral of adultery, backstabbing friends, family dysfunction, and epic drunkenness.

Very Russian

The absolute triumph of conniving bureaucrats, abetted by hypocritical church officials, is one of "Leviathan's" key messages. The paralytic culture of fatalism, which leads Kolya to bow to his fate in the end, is the other. It's all very, very Russian.

"Great Russian writers like Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy have all dealt with these themes, in much the same way," says Sergei Lavrentyev, a professor at the official Russian Institute of TV and Radio. "It seems like so much has changed since their day, and at the same time nothing has changed."

"Leviathan" has done fairly well with Russian audiences, for an "art film," experts say. Since it opened across the country two weeks ago, almost 300,000 people have seen it, and it appears on track to recoup its costs.

"This is a thinking person's film, so it's not going to get a mass audience," says Yevgeny Volodin, deputy editor of Cinema Business Today, a Moscow-based journal. "But it did very well when it opened, and seems likely to stay around for awhile. There is a very lively public discussion going on about it, which makes people want to see it."

As to the future of critical filmmaking in Russia, much may depend on the outcome of that public debate swirling around "Leviathan."

"There is a battle going on over what should be permitted, and what should not," says Daniil Dondurey, editor of Cinema Art, a leading artistic journal. "Each day there are more and more things that are not permitted, and growing expressions of loyalty seem to be a requirement of this cultural moment in Russia. But 'Leviathan' stands as an example to film producers that such criticism is possible, and they shouldn't be afraid. It's a really outstanding film event."

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