For the past few months a lively topic of discussion in Russia has been the film Leviathan, directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. The title is taken from the Book of Job, with which the plot has some affinities. This movie won a Golden Globe award for best foreign film and was on track to receive an Oscar. The Oscar didn’t happen, but the conversation continues.
The story line involves the seizing of one man’s house, business, and property by a powerful, corrupt petty official, with the encouragement of the local Russian Orthodox prelate. The hero seeks legal recourse, but to no avail. If this weren’t bad enough, his wife has an affair with his lawyer and best friend and then kills herself. The husband is framed for her murder and convicted, with no possibility of appeal.
This is a dark picture in every sense of the word. Did it deserve its high awards? In my opinion, it’s a typical art film—well made but not outstanding. My strong suspicion is that, as so often is the case, the Golden Globe was awarded as much on political as on artistic grounds. In the West the clear perception is that the film is a veiled or not-so-veiled critique of the current Russian government.
If I’m right about the political motivation for the award—and I think I am—here’s the irony: according to Zvyagintsev, the original inspiration for the film was not any happening in Russia, but an event in the U.S.! Leviathan was originally based on the story of Marvin Heemeyer, of Granby, Colorado, who in 2004 went on a rampage with a bulldozer as the result of a zoning dispute and ended up killing himself. At first the plan was to retell that story and even shoot the film in America. Only gradually did the setting and story mutate into the final result, set in Russia, in which the hero is more a Job-like sufferer than one who takes on the system.
A second irony is that, next to love and death, the most frequently recurring theme in Russian cinema and television is corruption. Corruption is a huge problem here. Everyone knows it. No one hides it. TV series and movies again and again narrate a man’s or woman’s battle against a powerful bureaucrat or businessman whom he or she rubs the wrong way. The main difference from Leviathan is that some of the time the good guy or gal prevails in the end. But not always. This new movie breaks no new ground, with the possible exception of its implicit critiquing the Orthodox Church.
I should add that the making of Leviathan had the support (I assume that means monetary, not only moral) of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.
Here is just one more example of the Euro-American obtuseness concerning Russian life and culture. Leviathan is no political protest, but at most a social commentary about a situation that Zvyagintsev views not so much as Putinian oppression as the universal plight of humanity.