Standort: / Meldung: "Like A Mirror"

Charles Maynes Moscow

Journalist in Moscow

22. 2. 2015 - 14:12

Like A Mirror

Russia's Oscar-nominated "Leviathan" makes waves at home (the wrong kind).

That the Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's film "Leviathan" has courted controversy in his home country should hardly come as a spoiler: the Oscar-nominated film offers a bleak vision of a deeply corrupt modern day Russia.

Loosely inspired by the story of a zoning dispute turned violent in Colorado U.SA. and sprinkled with biblical allegory from the Book of Job, Zvyagintsev transfers his tale to a picturesque seaside town in Russia's north.

There, the film's characters lead if not unhappy – well then certainly unhealthy – lives. True misery comes only to those who confront the powers that be. For, in "Leviathan", Russian authority in all its forms – the town mayor, state bureaucrats, the Russian Orthodox Church, the courts, the police, and by extension President Vladimir Putin – are in on the fix.

In that, some see a larger truth – others, a hatchet job.

Among the film's biggest critics is Russia's Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky.

"I find it extremely odd that among the many characters in this film, there is not a single attractive one", said Medinsky in comments to journalists earlier this month.

Leviathan Poster

Sony Pictures

Medinsky argues the film's depiction of daily Russian life – with its incessant drinking, swearing, and societal and moral rot – panders to western "myths" about the country. The film’s release was delayed until just this month over Zvyagentsev's refusal to recut the picture according to new domestic obscenity laws. ("Leviathan"'s domestic release silences out all swear words.)

Meanwhile, others have piled on: members of the Orthodox Church have called it blasphemous; conservative lawmakers argue for the film to be banned outright.

Prizes on the international awards circuit – including a Golden Globe for best foreign film – have only fed conspiracies that "Leviathan" is celebrated in the West for all the wrong reasons.

"Anything critical of Russia is automatically seen as either another Western attempt to denigrate Russia and the Orthodox Church, or it's the work of some 5th column of Russophobes who are paid by the West," says Alexander Rodnyansky, one of the film's producers.

In a recent interview, Rodnyansky argued "Leviathan" has fallen victim to shifting political winds at home – as Vladimir Putin has taken Russia on an increasingly conservative and anti-Western course.

"(And) it's not just the officials," says Rodnyansky. "I would say that Leviathan divided Russian audience in a way that no film has since Perestroika times. You are either passionately against it or as passionately for it."



Count Tatiana Tribulina amoung the film's detractors.

A local deputy in Teribrika, the small village on the shores of the Barents Sea that serves as the backdrop for the film, Tribulina, admits local reactions were mixed during a recent screening.

Everyone loved the way the film captures the northern seascapes, she notes. They loved the cinematography and the music. But the film? A resounding no.

"The film was made in Teribrika but for some reason everyone thinks it's about Teribrika," she tells FM4.

"It's not. These are invented characters. The film has no relation to us at all. Our people don't live like that. We live just fine... just like Russians everywhere."

"Maybe even better than Americans... ", she adds.

But it's exactly these types of comparisons that give "Leviathan" its power, says Moscow journalist Yuri Saprykin. Saprykin argues that the film is like a mirror: full of little details that resonate though some Russians may not always care for the view.

"One of the complaints you often hear about the film is 'I don't see myself in that film. That film is not about me or any of my friends or acqaintances,' he says. "But a lot of films are like that... and the very fact these discussions are happening around this film proves that 'Leviathan' captures something real."

For all the backlash surrounding "Leviathan" at home, one of the mysteries of the film is that it was funded in part by the state and chosen – actually, selected – by Russia as its' official entry for the Oscars.

Leviathan Filmstill

Sony Pictures

The journalist Yuri Saprykin argues that, here, the authorities are playing a subtle game. The state doesn't want or need to turn Zvyaginstev and his film into a cause celebre reminiscent of Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenytsin or Boris Pasternak of "Doctor Zhivago" fame.

So, Saprykin says, the authorities play it both ways. "At the same time they organize a campaign against the film and saying it was done for the West to blacken Russia's name, they're also giving the film some support," notes Saprykin. "And I'm certain that if he wins the Oscar, very high level people in the government will congratulate Zyvaginstev and say it's a big victory for Russia cinema."

Be that as it may, Tatiana Tribulina says, in Teribrika, there are no plans to gather and watch the Oscar ceremony. State television isn't carrying the Academy Awards live this year. Besides Tribulina can see little good coming of an Oscar win for "Leviathan": "Come summer, the tourists will come here and ruin the place" she says.

It's a fittingly bleak view on the success of a fittingly bleak film.