Social Commentary

Inside ‘Leviathan’: Russian Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Award-Winning Anti-Putin Cannes Film

The acclaimed director of The Return and Elena sat down with Richard Porton to discuss his very downbeat, desolate portrait of contemporary Russia.


At Cannes, politics and cinema frequently overlap.

In 2004, the awarding of the Palme d’or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, by a jury headed by Quentin Tarantino, was at least partially designed to excoriate the Bush administration. And when the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or on Saturday for his compelling film Winter Sleep, he dedicated his prize to the “young people who lost their lives ” during a year of demonstrations against the increasingly repressive rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition, before Cannes 2014 came to a close, a considerable amount of political speculation swirled around Andrey Zvyagintsev’s acclaimed Leviathan, which won the Best Screenplay award for Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin’s script on Saturday evening. Was this darkly humorous film a swipe at Vladimir Putin? Why did the Russian Ministry of Culture help to finance such a downbeat portrait of contemporary Russia? What would be the possible impact of a bill that Putin recently signed banning profanity in films on a movie like Leviathan, which features a fair amount of salty language?

Even though Leviathan’s symbol-laden, frequently opaque narrative makes it a challenging film for audiences, it’s easy to see why Zvyagintsev’s brooding meditation on corruption in a small town near the Barents Sea in northern Russia has been interpreted as a political allegory.

The plot of Leviathan revolves around the efforts of the town’s thuggish mayor Vadim, played to oily perfection by Roman Madyanov, to seize valuable seaside property owned by Kolia (Aleksei Serebriakov), the film’s nominal hero. A desperate man worn down by bureaucratic malfeasance, Kolia enlists the help of his friend Dmitri, a lawyer who does his best to bribe the sleazy mayor. The beleaguered Kolia, who functions as a sort of Russian Everyman, as well as a modern-day Job, must deal with a dalliance between his much younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and Dmitri, Lilya’s strained relationship with Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev), his teenaged son from an earlier marriage, as well as the outright hostility of the Russian legal system to his struggle to retain his own property. In several quasi-absurdist sequences, a magistrate reads rulings against Kolia in a rapid-fire monotone that highlights the extent to which the deck is stacked against the hapless protagonist.

Several hours before the Cannes award ceremony, The Daily Beast sat down with Zvyagintsev at the Unifrance Pavilion to discuss both the current political climate in Russia and the similarities and differences between Leviathan (which was just purchased by Sony Pictures Classics, who will eventually release it in the U.S.) and his previous work.

Although he was undeniably cordial as he basked in the praise Leviathan received during the festival, it was also impossible to overlook the fact that one of Russia’s most distinguished directors was walking on eggshells throughout our chat. Several of Zvyagintsev’s somewhat evasive responses to my questions indicate that he is wary of overstepping certain boundaries and would like to ward off government interference in his work—not unsurprising when one considers that Leviathan is a no-holds barred assault on the Russian status quo; even the Russian Orthodox Church, which a recent article described as singing from “Putin’s hymn sheet” is not left unscathed.

Take the scenes in Vadim’s office where a large portrait of Putin looms large and appears to link the corrupt mayor to the president. When I queried Zvyagintsev about this, he merely replied: “In Russia, every official office displays a portrait of the president. That’s how it is in reality; I didn’t put his portrait there to make a statement.” Since a director who exercises such control over his visual style could obviously have decided to frame his shots in a manner that de-emphasized Putin’s unsmiling visage, it’s difficult not to see this remark as slightly disingenuous.

Zvyagintsev was only a bit more forthcoming when we discussed his dealings with Andrei Medinsky, the Russian minister of culture.

At the Leviathan press conference on Friday, he admitted that Medinsky expressed his displeasure with the film and the cautious director prevaricated when I asked him if he might speculate about why Medinsky disliked the movie. On the one hand, Zvyagintsev tried to deflect the question by claiming that Medinsky’s dissatisfaction was just a matter of personal taste. “He was just expressing his personal opinion,” Zvyagintsev insisted, while claiming that the minister, “speaking in his capacity as an official, deemed it the work of a talented filmmaker.” But when I asked him to pinpoint specific reasons that Leviathan might have provoked Medinsky’s ire, he explained that, “Medinsky saw the movie and then came to me and said, ‘The end of this movie is very tragic and pessimistic. There’s no hope or light.’ He thinks that, from his personal perspective, films are not supposed to be this tragic. They're supposed to give audiences hope and enlighten them while promoting positive emotions. I just think Mr. Medinsky and myself have different conceptions of cinema. He thinks that films should be ideological instruments while I think it’s important to have a more nuanced point of view.”

Oddly enough, Medinsky’s views come off like a diluted version of the dictates of Soviet Socialist realism during the Stalin era, a doctrine that placed prominent filmmakers, painters, novelists, poets, and theater directors in a bind by forcing them to embrace “positive” proletarian values and, of course, avoid the kind of pessimism and cynicism that could be interpreted as criticism of the state.

While avoiding direct criticism of Putin during our exchange, Zvyagintsev acknowledged that Russians have long been cynical about their political leaders. One of Leviathan’s most memorable scenes (and one which elicited gales of appreciative laughter during the Cannes press screening) depicts an outing where portraits of former Soviet leaders are used for drunken target practice. When I asked him to comment on the pertinence of this scene to the lives of contemporary Russians, he volunteered that it’s “true that people in Russia despise power. Power does not make their lives better. At certain times, Russians have been afraid of power. This was especially obvious when Stalin was alive. After Stalin, leaders became comic figures. There were, for example, a lot of jokes about Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov. When people are unhappy about those in power, humor helps them achieve a certain distance from the people they despise.”

Zvyagintsev also admitted that heavy-handed tactics are used in today’s Russia to intimidate those with views termed “inappropriate.” When I asked him if Kolia’s predicament was inspired by any actual incidents, he reminded me that his film is “not a fairy tale; the story is close to reality. Do you remember the scene in which the mayor and his cronies take Dmitri to this desolate place and threaten him with a gun? This was based on a true story about a journalist, who wrote something that was considered inappropriate and was then taken to a forest and also threatened with a gun. Unfortunately, this sort of thing sometimes happens.”