The century-plus history of Russian and Soviet cinema is one of intermittent brilliance (Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky are prime examples) followed by long periods of bureaucratic interference and censorship. So it came as no surprise when the worldwide acclaim accorded Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan was met with scorn by the Russian government that actually helped finance the film.
Leviathan (not to be confused with the 2012 maritime documentary of the same name) delivers a scathing social critique of Vladimir Putin's Russia. It won Best Screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (and later, many other awards in Europe, India and the U.S.), which only caused Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to denounce the film's depiction of official corruption and hard-drinking working class people as not representative of "real Russians."
That disapproval didn't stop Leviathan from becoming Russia's official entry in this year's Oscars, where it became one of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Medinsky — who claims he had nothing to do with his government's significant financial support for the film — inspired mirth on an international scale when he went on to complain that Leviathan promotes "existential hopelessness," which some might reasonably describe as the country's primary cultural output.
There's certainly no shortage of hopelessness or futility in Leviathan. Set in the present day, it tells of one man's struggles with local bureaucracy in a small town on Russia's rugged northern coast. Kolya (Aleksey Serebriakov) owns an auto repair shop and lives with his wife and son in an adjacent house that has been in his family for generations. His property occupies prime real estate overlooking the Barents Sea, which inspires a land grab by the town's corrupt Mayor Vadim (Roman Madianov), who acts like he runs the local mob. Kolya's problems escalate after he enlists the help of an old army buddy who has become a high-powered lawyer in Moscow. It seems the brutal power of authority in today's Russia — including a complicit Russian Orthodox Church — knows few bounds.
Though Leviathan's message is clear, co-writer/director Zvyagintsev finds surprisingly subtle ways to deliver it. The film focuses on the intimate details of private lives to get at larger, mostly unspoken themes. Widescreen images of the beautiful yet harsh terrain silently suggest the immensity of institutional oppression, and key events often occur off-screen where they can live freely in the viewer's imagination.
Only a pivotal scene in which many of the film's characters gather for outdoor barbecue, vodka and target practice crosses the line to overt political commentary — but mainly in the interests of humor. A police official brings large, framed photos of 20th-century Russian leaders to shoot with his insanely overpowered (and Russian-made) AK-47 assault rifle. Kolya flips through the portraits of Lenin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev and asks: "Got anyone more current?"
Zvyagintsev cites a variety of sources for his film, from the Bible's Book of Job to Colorado's infamous "Killdozer" episode, in which a man vented his frustration with local bureaucracy by armoring a bulldozer and destroying a large portion of his town (an early version of the Leviathan script featured a similar turn of events). Despite the umbrage taken by Russian officials for the specifics of its story, Leviathan finds power in the universal nature of its characters and events. Things look pretty bleak in Putin's Russia, but abuse of power as seen in Leviathan seldom stops at international borders.