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The Paradoxes of “Leviathan”: A Discussion with Andrei Zvyagintsev

Andrei Zvyagintsev entered filmmaking relatively late in life, and to date has produced only four feature films. Yet he is arguably the most prominent Russian filmmaker working today, and his new film “Leviathan,” opening in limited release on Christmas Day before going wide next year, has recently advanced into the foreign-language Oscars short-list, following a triumphant march along the festival circuit.

With his first two features, allusively titled “The Return” (2003) and “The Banishment” (2007), Zvyagintsev earned a reputation for crafting chamber family dramas with a distinct flavor of Old Testament parables. “Leviathan,” then, is at once a return to form and an advance into wholly new territory. Its central conflict is, ostensibly, one of the individual against a deeply corrupt, drunken and murderous state power with methods that bear more than a passing resemblance to those practiced by the current Russian government. Plus—perhaps somewhat unexpectedly for a modern-day update on the Book of Job—it nearly becomes a murder mystery.

Given the resounding success of Zvyagintsev’s daring amalgamation of current events and Biblical parable, I wanted to look closely at the way the film’s constituent parts function together, and also to examine briefly its immediate socio-political context, which may not be readily accessible to audiences outside of Russia.

It so happened that a few weeks ago I co-moderated a post-screening discussion of “Leviathan” in a theater in suburban New Jersey. A very solid (and solidly American) audience was very much interested in finding out whether “he did it or not.” (Just who did or didn’t do what I will not say for fear of a spoiler.)

I expect that Russian audiences—if and when they get to see the film—will not be of two minds on the question of the accused’s innocence. As Andrei Zvyagintsev reminded me when we met in New York during his recent U.S. press tour, “some thirty percent of Russia’s prisoners are entrepreneurs of various kinds, who got “fixed”—either by their competitors or by the government. They simply disappear. There is no recourse for these people. The most prominent example, of course, was Khodorkovsky.”

He might have also mentioned Alexei Navalnyi, an inveterate Putin scourge and anti-corruption activist, who is currently facing a ten-year sentence on allegations that his company overcharged a client (something even the client denies), or the two girls from the punk-band Pussy Riot, who spent two years in a prison camp for “hooliganism.”

As it happens, Pussy Riot do make a split-second appearance in the film by way of spray-painted graffiti on a partly-obscured TV newsreel. And they receive an even more oblique mention towards the end, in a sermon delivered to a church full of unrepentant wheelers and dealers, whose message is: we are the church, ours is the truth, our prayers get answered, not those of blasphemers capering about the altar. The last bit is a reference to Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” performance (“Mother of God, drive Putin away!”), which ultimately landed them behind bars. While Russian audiences are far better equipped to pick up on such subtleties than their New Jersey counterparts, I suspect they will be equally hard-pressed to say what the film’s many allusions, elisions and suggestive symbolism ultimately amount to.

What does it mean that portraits of communist leaders are used for target practice? That crooked officials plot their vengeance under the watchful eye of Putin’s still “untargeted” portrait? That an old, beautifully frescoed church is in ruins, while a new, immaculately white church welcomes the blackest of sinners (whose black luxury cars fill its parking lot)? That Philip Glass’s Akhnaten overture opens and closes the film? And what, in the end, is the film’s titular beast? For “Leviathan” turns out to be—perhaps of necessity—a highly convoluted, slippery creature, only partly glimpsed from the shore, and its somewhat paradoxical circumstances only add to the general uncertainty.

Whereas “The Return” and “The Banishment” were set firmly in no-place and no-time, far from the affairs of the day, Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” appears to be an unsparing indictment of the lawlessness and corruption of Putin’s authoritarian regime… Or perhaps of a deeply corrupt regional administration that is so far removed from the center of power that the aforementioned portrait of the dear leader appears to be about fifteen years old… Or perhaps of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose chillingly menacing representative seems to be pulling the strings of a puppet hydra, whose smug, writhing heads are the town’s mayor, judge, prosecutor and police chief… Or all of the above. However it may be, the film paradoxically received some $2.5 million or about 45% of its budget in government funds.

Following the film’s premiere at Cannes, the Russian culture minister said that it was not to his liking (no idle words in official Russia); moreover, he let it be known that films portraying Russia as a “shithole” [sic] would no longer receive state funding. Despite such ominous pronouncements, “Leviathan” was subsequently chosen as Russia’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards competition. In today’s increasingly witch-hunting Russia, the nomination of a film that can easily earn its director the label of a Russophobe (common and most damning), traitor to the motherland (perennial favorite) or, at the very least, a CIA shill, might seem like an act of remarkable courage and defiance—had the film actually been shown there.

More likely, it is an equally remarkable instance of pragmatism and clear-sightedness from a crony committee that has managed to get but a single film into the Oscars short-list in the fifteen years of Putin’s rule, and last year nominated the monstrously kitsch WWII epic “Stalingrad”—in IMAX 3D.

In welcome contrast, “Leviathan” is somehow taut and fragmentary at once, admirably acted, unabashedly stylish, and very aware of the tropes and tastes of international arthouse cinema. It is entirely telling that Nikolai’s house at the center of the conflict bears no trace of the traditional izba, but is a smart seaside cottage with large windows running the length of an entire wall. At the same time, the film has its deep and sprawling roots in the Book of Job, the early 19th century German novella “Michael Kohlhaas,” Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil” and a somewhat more recent American news item: the “Killdozer rampage.”

Since carrying off the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes the film has amassed a very impressive cache of festival awards, nominations, distribution deals and critical praise. One member of Russia’s nominating committee has opined that it was one of the very few Russian films made in 2014 that could be “accessible to an American audience,” while its relentlessly bleak depiction of Russian society would be an advantage, given the state of U.S.-Russia relations. In short, “Leviathan” has a very real chance at the Oscars—if only as a perfect opportunity for “Yankee-go-home” to thumb their collective nose at Russia.

For all its anti-Russian, anti-Putin or anti-clerical rhetoric, “Leviathan”’s international accomplishments are meticulously documented in official Russian press. There is no doubt that ordinary Russians are genuinely proud of their compatriot’s success and would like to see him honored with America’s top film award. At the same time, no one seems to be in any particular hurry to see the film. “Leviathan” has not received a domestic release, and its fate remains somewhat ambiguous.

Originally scheduled for a November release, the film ran afoul of a new law prohibiting the use of obscenities in public media. Taboo language has a rich and vivid history in Russia and remains an indelible fiber in the fabric of Russian life [vide supra]. Its banishment from the speculum of this life is—according to the filmmaker—a “senseless, thoughtless, foolish measure.” Zvyagintsev’s characters, who spend most of their time in a state of great nervous tension or consuming frightful quantities of vodka (still ok) for its relief, take natural and frequent recourse in common vulgarities. Whitewashing their speech would be about as natural as having them speak Mandarin.

Zvyagintsev initially bristled at the idea, but was eventually forced to capitulate. “If I want people to see the film in theaters I must abide by Russian law. But that’s hardly the greatest of the evils that might have befallen the film.” Whether greater evils will spare “Leviathan” in its native land remains to be seen. As of this writing, the film has been completely re-dubbed for a rescheduled February release. Everywhere else, audiences will get to see and hear the film in its original form—even if in most cases it will be filtered through subtitles.

Asked whether he thought the decision to send “Leviathan” to the Oscars and suppress it at home might be a brilliant feat of perverse propaganda, Zvyagintsev assured me that “there is no mechanism in place to release or suppress the film. The only contract I signed was with my producer, and no institution can interfere with the film’s progress. They would have to come up with some really unheard-of law to keep the film from being shown outside Russia.” Indeed, the late release may be a clever strategy engineered by the film’s seasoned and savvy producer Aleksandr Rodnyansky (also of “Stalingrad”): the greater the film’s profile abroad, the harder it will be to suppress it at home.

Both Zvyagintsev and Rodnyansky have taken every opportunity to explain to international audiences and media outlets that “Leviathan” was directly inspired by the “Killdozer rampage” of one Marvin Heemeyer of Colorado. It seems Zvyagintsev heard of Heemeyer while in the U.S., working on a short film for the omnibus “New York, I Love You” (his segment was ultimately excluded), and was bowled over by the story of one man’s violent revolt against an entire town. Rodnyansky is, moreover, confident that “Koreans, Belgians, Americans or Italians will have no trouble relating to the Russian film because Leviathan speaks of man’s lot and fate.”

At first I was skeptical of all such pronouncements. In the Soviet Union of my childhood, fiery invectives against injustice and oppression… in the Bourgeois West were the only way to hint at these matters at home. But having read and spoken with Zvyagintsev, and considered his previous films, I am much more inclined to take seriously the filmmaker’s claim that “Leviathan” is a “universal” or “eternal story,” and that “its two feet are planted firmly in the realm of art. The characters speak Russian only because I happen to be Russian. This is why we transposed the story from Colorado to Russia, but the conflict, the struggle of a simple man against fate, god or state—here personified by the mayor—this could have happened anywhere.”

Actually, I am willing to concede only one foot, not two. I think that Zvyagintsev’s natural instinct is to craft stories with the suggestive allusiveness and universal concerns of parables and allegories—stories set in the Land of Uz. His second instinct, perhaps, is that of a seasoned dramatist. Questioned about the unrelenting pessimism of “Leviathan” (which I foolishly mistook for an assessment of Russia’s prospects under Putin), Zvyagintsev explained, “When you want to explore a subject you must place it under a magnifying glass and tighten the screw until it breaks, to see how much pressure your subject can withstand. I want to see what my hero is made of, test his mettle.”

He is in his natural element, then, among the age-old and still unrelieved travails and heartrending contradictions of human existence—even more specifically, the existence of the family unit. It is the family, perhaps more than the individual hero, that is put to the screw in “Leviathan” to see how much suffering it can bear. It is no accident that the family unit is deliberately weakened from the outset—it is a composite, artificial family, whose cracks become evident in the very first scenes.

The same may be said of all four of Zvyagintsev’s films, including his previous effort “Elena.” It was Zvyagintsev’s first collaboration with Rodnyansky, and while its setting is far more defined geographically, and its concerns seemingly far more topical and distinctly Russian, the social and political realities of contemporary Russia are kept very skillfully in the background. Indeed, to this viewer they appeared almost purely incidental.

“Leviathan” is a far more earnest effort to transplant a universal tale onto Russian soil—to make a topical film that can be acutely relevant in the socio-political circumstances of today’s Russia. And while the film unquestionably deserves its many accolades, I think it has not been entirely successful in marrying the parable of everyman’s (or every-family’s) struggle against fate, god or state to the (alas, much too drawn-out) “newsreel” of corruption and lawlessness that reign over many aspects of life in Putin’s Russia.

The great difficulty here is finding the elusive and highly precarious balance between the veiled, suggestive language demanded by the genre of parable and the explicit, factual language of the everyday. Indeed, such a balance may be no more than a phantom. In any case, with “Leviathan,” Zvyagintsev had certainly set himself a daunting and extremely delicate task. Too many recognizable details, too explicit a target for righteous indignation, too solvable a riddle, and the eternal story recedes into the background. This is why Pussy Riot are merely a flash on the screen and a veiled reference in a soporific sermon; why the real villain is never clearly identified; why the town where the action is set—as we learn from the rattle of the court’s decision—is a most non-committal Pribrezhnyi or Seaside.

And why the final sequence of the film may leave many—Russian or otherwise—puzzled.  When I wondered why so many key facts are deliberately suppressed, while an awfully cruel (and perhaps ultimately irrelevant) truth is revealed at the very end, Zvyagintsev confided that when he and his writing partner came up with the finale “it was like a bolt of lightning—we felt that we had made an incredible discovery, that with this finale we were approaching some kind of terrifying truth.”

I can believe that some in the audience will indeed experience such a shock, but only if they do not spend the entire film looking for veiled allusions to contemporary events—or, indeed, look for clues to the murder. In the world of the parable, in the Land of Uz, the ending will have its proper effect. Meanwhile, “Leviathan” remains something of a composite beast. It may be an awesome sight at sea, but it stands a bit precariously on land.


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