A Whale of a Tale

‘Leviathan’: The Oscar-Nominated Movie Russia Loves to Hate

Andrei Zviagintsev’s prize-winning film tells a story of pervasive corruption and repression that Moscow doesn’t want the world to see.

01.20.15 10:45 PM ET

MOSCOW—Last week, many Russians watched the online, pirated versions of “Leviathan,” the Golden Globe winner this year for best foreign-language film. Arguments broke out, one after another, in a shocking wave of public reaction to a piece of art. Internet forums buzzed in emotional discussions filled with bitter criticism.

When director Andrei Zviagintsev returned from the Golden Globe ceremony, he heard from his countrymen that his movie was full of “rotten lies” and “filthy libel”—that the film should be banned, actors punished, and that a new law must be adopted to protect Russian audiences from movies harmful to the country’s reputation.

Some “Leviathan” haters even hinted that the movie was ordered up by Washington, eager to defame Russia, in a manner similar to the way the CIA used the novel Doctor Zhivago as a literary weapon during the Cold War.

None of the Kremlin’s top officials called to congratulate Zviagintsev on his movie’s victories at Cannes (best screenplay), the Golden Globes, or for its Oscar nomination.

On Monday, officials in the region of Samara started a campaign against Valery Grishko, a director at Samara academic theater, who played a bishop in Leviathan. The actor created a “cynical and dirty parody of Russian Orthodox bishops, was bullying toward the government and the Orthodox Church,” they said.

Zviagintsev was upset and “painfully sensitive” to the shallow criticism of those who did not understand his movie, he told the independent Internet television channel Rain TV. It took Zviagintsev and his co-authors three years of hard work just to write the script for the movie, which was inspired by the biblical story of Job, who lost everything he treasured in life. The director spent one more year on casting and the careful planning of every shot before he and his crew began 67 days shooting, and some sleepless and stressful nights.

It would be an understatement to say that “Leviathan” is just a study of corruption or alcoholism in Russia. Zviagintsev tells a universal story of humanity, about the powerful of this world crushing a little man’s life, about people’s lack of compassion, and also of little men destroying their own lives. The movie draws, of course, on the Leviathan of the 17th-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, about the metaphorically monstrous and merciless state that is needed to civilize people whose lives otherwise would be “nasty, brutish and short.”

In his “Leviathan,” Zviagintsev tells a tragic story of a fragile and heavy drinking Russian man, Kolia, living on a peninsula on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, whose life falls apart like a house of cards when he starts a hopeless war against a corrupt mayor who is afraid to lose his power in the upcoming elections.

The mayor drinks vodka with a local bishop and discusses ways of keeping his position through various corrupt ploys. When Kolia refuses to obey his will and invites a Moscow lawyer to defend his rights, the drunken mayor goes to Kolia’s house and, as the face of the state, this Leviathan yells at Kolia in language fitting for a master berating a feudal servant: “You are just an insect, you have never, you don’t have, and you never will have ‘rights’!” Injustice, which is the the real cancer of the Russian state power system, wins out in the movie as it often does in reality.

Not surprisingly, real Russian officials, nationalists and Orthodox activists make no secret of their loathing for “Leviathan.”

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky told Izvetiya newspaper last week that the portrayals in “Leviathan” had nothing in common with his own personality or the nature of his friends and acquaintances. That’s interesting, because it was Medinskiy who approved the state’s financing for the movie, but that was more than four years ago, when swearing onscreen was not banned by law, and when the Kremlin was still in the midst of a political thaw and a re-set with the United States.

By the time of the “Leviathan” premiere in Russia, due on February 5, authorities plan to cut out all curse words. Tatyana Trubilina, the local administrator of the village of Teriberka where the movie was made, has called for a ban on “Leviathan” in all movie theaters across the country.

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To many Russians, Zviagintsev’s drama feels like “salt in the wound,” says well-known playwright and satirist Victor Shenderovich. “The reaction reflects symptoms of our society’s neuroses. For 15 years, Putin explained to us that we are better than anybody in the world and Zviagintsev’s film happened to come out at the peak of nationalist, military, religious and ideological hysteria,” Shenderovich told The Daily Beast.

That a Russian movie has won such international recognition should be seen as as a great Russian victory in the arts, even if many people in Russia don’t like it. It was a state-subsidized film. Why is the Kremlin so indifferent, indeed, so hostile now, when it has won the acclaim of the world’s moviemakers?

To be sure, when news of its awards and nomination broke, Channel One and Channel Two did say Russia had been recognized, but they left out any mention of Zviagintsev and said little else about the film.

The director is puzzled by all this. For the past decade of his career in international cinema he has felt “isolated,” he told Rain TV, left on the side of the road by the Kremlin’s more beloved celebrities. The reaction to “Leviathan” is “ultimately strange,” he told the interviewer. Indeed, one might say it has been nasty, brutish and short.