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Leviathan: Attacking Putin's Russia From Inside the Whale | reviews, news & interviews

Leviathan: Attacking Putin's Russia From Inside the Whale

Leviathan: Attacking Putin's Russia From Inside the Whale

Introducing the director Andrei Zvyagintsev and his Cannes-winning film

Pondering Russia: Andrei Zvyagintsev on setImages Vladimir Michugov/Artificial Eye

When Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan opens in Russia early next year it won’t be in the director’s cut. Given new legislation effective from this past July, it will be against the law to include the very distinctive Russian expletives, known locally as mat, that are plentiful in the director’s film, and add a very distinctive quality to his depiction of contemporary Russia.

It’s a difference that may be lost on non-Russian speaking viewers who won’t be surprised by the usual procession of f-words and the like. But for Zvyagintsev himself, it’s a matter of considerable concern. “Film-makers, and not only documentarists, strive to show today’s reality honestly on the screen, and a very important part of that is a sense of the social environment, in which mat is an everyday factor,” the director said in a comprehensive interview with Russia’s film publication Iskusstvo Kino (Film Art) in June, a month or so after Leviathan came away from Cannes with the prize for best screenplay. “Using euphemisms or ‘bleeping out’ damages the investigations of contemporary art.”

It’s the final indictment of Vladimir Putin’s regime

Zvyagintsev is the first to agree that such restrictions have a place in television, but argues cogently that cinema-goers enter into an effective “contract” with the film-maker when they buy a ticket, knowing what to expect, not least through the mandatory rating system (Leviathan received an 18+ rating). So there’s much more to the matter than merely concern for the nation’s “moral wellbeing". “What’s behind the law – it isn’t merely stupidity, but a tendency to restrict civil rights, which few people are talking about. With no attention to conscience, in broad daylight, the constitutional ban on censorship is being broken.”

His sense of humour obviously hasn’t deserted him, however. Alluding to the results of Russia’s peremptory decision this summer to ban food imports from countries, including America and the EU, that it perceives as hostile in the ongoing conflict over events in Ukraine, he added: “So to watch the director’s cut you’ll have to go abroad. Which is where you can also buy all those fruits and cheeses, if you can’t live without them, and where you can watch films with their expletives left in.”

Censorship isn’t the only issue that is putting the Russian director up against the authorities of his homeland. Leviathan is, quite simply, a red-hot attack on the state of Russian society today, and the endemic and cynical corruption of its ruling classes. Its hero, a simple man of the people out in the remote regions of the Far North, struggles to protect what he has built up for himself and his family, but loses at every point. Despite the help of an old army comrade who’s become a top-shot Moscow lawyer, he’s defeated in the courts, and at every other point of appeal.

The drama of that struggle is powerful enough in itself, before parallel emotional conflicts hit him too (lead actors Alexei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova pictured right), literally leaving him with nothing: the metaphorical context to which Zvyagintsev alludes is the biblical story of Job. Perhaps most damningly of all, the film shows the total complicity of the higher ranks of the Orthodox Church in this whole self-serving process. It’s the final indictment of Vladimir Putin’s regime; though that name isn’t mentioned, there’s a wonderful scene in which photo portraits of all previous Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev, are brought out for target practice.

All in all, it's a departure for the 50-year-old director, who came to sudden fame when his debut feature The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice festival in 2003; it was followed four years later by The Banishment, which went to Cannes. Both were emotionally taut films, but concentrated on family dramas, with an aesthetic priority that if anything actually avoided any sense of place: both seemed consciously “delocalised”, set in a world that could as well be Scandinavia as Russia (Zvyagintsev is certainly attracted to the aesthetics of northern landscapes). Only in Elena from 2011, which won the “Un certain regard” section jury prize at Cannes, another drama of family conflict, did we begin to see anything of a distinct local Russian environment.

All of which makes Leviathan something of a sea-change for the director. His new film is, incidentally, very much centred on the sea. Its title, as well as alluding to Thomas Hobbes's famous treatise, also references the remains of a beached whale (pictured below) which we see, alongside rusting boats, on the massive open shorelines. It’s Zvyagintsev’s fourth film with cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, and the widescreen bleak spaces have never looked more impressive (the director’s use of Philip Glass in the score is also becoming something of a trademark).

It has certainly widened Zvyagintsev’s palette. His career to date has proved very different from those of many of his contemporaries. Born in Novosibirsk in Siberia, he graduated from drama school there in 1984; he moved to Moscow in 1986, continuing his acting study there, and went on to work in theatre through the 1990s. So, unlike the great majority of his contemporaries who went through institutions like Moscow’s prestigious VGIK film school, he has no formal film education as such. If anything, he’s said, he learnt cinema for himself, principally through screenings at Moscow’s Muzei Kino cinema museum, a venue that has itself been through its own fair share of problems with the authorities. Zvyagintsev was quick to defend that institution immediately after his 2003 Venice victory.

Ironically perhaps, for a director whose films are really not made for the small screen, Zvyagintsev got his directing break through television. He went to work in 2000 for the Moscow television station REN TV, where he ended up directing three episodes of a serial. REN TV producer Dmitry Lesnevksy then gave him free reign to direct his script for The Return, on a budget that was certainly small; after its Venice victory it went on to sell to territories all around the world, on a scale virtually unimaginable for a Russian film after the lean times of the 1990s. For Elena and Leviathan he has moved on to work with another television veteran now turned producer, Alexander Rodnyansky.

The appearance and success of The Return in 2003 in many ways seemed to mark the rebirth of the new Russian film industry, as a new generation of younger filmmakers appeared with films that caught a new zeitgeist. Many, including Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov’s Roads to Koktebel (also from 2003), were more socially oriented than Zvyagintsev’s work; often concerned with the “darker sides” of Russian life, they won frequent international festival prizes, but achieved only limited distribution at home. The Russian critic Andrei Plakhov has referred to that new generation as the country’s “Angry Young Men”, though the reality may be somewhat more complicated. Some directors were engaging with more documentary-style material, as well as reviving the humanist traditions of Soviet cinema from the 1960s; others seemed more obviously out to shock, carrying on the perestroika-era phenomenon of chernukha, with its tendency to present reality in a deliberately dark manner.

It was a reality not lost on Russia’s current minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky. One of his first utterances after his appointment was that the state shouldn’t be funding films that portrayed their country in a negative light. Medinsky, a figure who has certainly divided the Russian cultural community over which he nominally presides, was a prime mover behind the new legislation on expletives.

Leviathan hasn’t escaped Medinsky’s attention, either. One of his targets was the scenes of prodigious drinking that can be seen in the film; according to the minister, that’s not how Russian life is. “I think that he does not know the real Russia,” Zvyagintsev (pictured left) laconically replied to such criticism in his Iskusstvo Kino interview. “The minister is referring to something wider. I think that he truly believes that if you can get rid of ‘awkward’ films that reflect life as it is, then that life itself will become better. It’s a continuation of his battles with ‘myths’: about Russian drunkenness, thieving from the state, bribery and much else, which in his opinion simply don’t exist in Russia.”

One of those who witnessed the Cannes reception of Leviathan was the editor of Iskusstvo Kino, Daniil Dondurei; a sociologist as well as film scholar and head of the liberal publication, Dondurei is more than in touch with contemporary Russia. He predicts a “complicated” release for the film next year, going against official doctrine on all fronts as it does.

“But I felt pride for Russia when 3,500 people at Cannes stood for 12 minutes and applauded,” Dondurei told theartsdesk. Medinsky, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. “God seems to bless Andrei Zvyagintsev.”

Not least because Leviathan has been nominated as Russia’s Best Foreign Film Oscar contender for next year, with Dondurei sensing that its chances are strong. That in itself was something of a surprise, given that a new film by Nikita Mikhalkov could well have replaced it. For Dondurei, the mere fact that Medinsky didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – interrupt that process was something of a triumph.

The Russian viewer is forced to confront the suggestion that this is no external enemy

Dondurei reminded me that the anti-state mood of Leviathan isn’t exceptional in Russia’s cinema climate, which has retained a degree of free-thinking no longer to be found in much of the rest of society. Last year’s The Major by director Yuri Bykov was a scabrous attack on corruption within Russia’s road police (it won the Best Film prize at the Shanghai film festival, but missed a UK release). Dondurei joked that he had recommended to the Russian Interior Ministry that it use the film as an example of how the nation truly regarded their law-enforcers.

Bykov’s new film The Fool, which premiered at Locarno this summer, is another scalpel-like dissection of the struggles of the individual against a society which has lost any sense of moral value, of its “systemic illness”. The paradox of that film, equally apparent in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, is that the Russian viewer is forced to confront the suggestion that this is no external enemy, but rather the result of a society that they have themselves been complicit in shaping. And that one day something’s going to blow.

Zvyagintsev himself puts it as well as anyone: “In a civilized country the people know, and the power structure understands, that the power structure is serving society. But in Russia the power structure behaves like it’s God, and not there for the people at all. And for some reason the people go along with that state of affairs.”

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Leviathan

'Leviathan' is, quite simply, a red-hot attack on the state of Russian society today, and the endemic and cynical corruption of its ruling classes

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