FILM REVIEW: Few Russians left unmoved by “Leviathan” of a movie

By bne IntelliNews February 10, 2015

Anna Kravchenko in Moscow -


Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, probably the most anticipated film in post-Soviet Russia, hit the screens of more than 600 cinemas on February 5. The film made RUB7.2mn (€97,000) in its first day of release, an impressive sum for Hollywood-dominated Russian distribution market. Weekend box office is not counted yet, but it’s expected to reach RUB55mn-60mn, according to Booker’s Bulletin, which is one and half-times more than "Birdman" on its premier day and three-times more than the total box office receipts of Zvyagintsev’s previous film, “Elena”.

Leviathan has already won number of prestigious international awards, including best screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe. Before the film was released at home, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky slammed it as “extremely opportunistic” and said that taxpayers should not pay for films that "openly spit on" the government. Medinsky’s criticism drew attention to the film like no prize could.

On January 10, a copy of the film was leaked online and was downloaded 30,000 times during the first two hours, and up to 6mn times by the end of January. What was happening around “Leviathan” quickly became as complex and interesting as the film itself. After “Leviathan” won the Golden Globe for best foreign film and received an Oscar nomination, it was impossible to open Facebook or a news site related to the film without finding a heated discussion below of whether the film portrays Russia and Russians accurately.

"Leviathan" has split viewers, leaving very few of them indifferent to it. Officials hurried to join Medinsky. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called the film “anti-national”. He added that this is another Russian film that illustrates Russian life using the example of a ramshackle village, which one can find in any country.

Sergei Markov, member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, called for Zvyagintsev to publicly repent, Raskolnikov-style. “What the film does is it dehumanizes Russians, and thus justifies a genocide of Russian people. If I were Zvyagintsev, I would recall the film release, come to Red Square, fall on my knees and ask for forgiveness,” Markov said in an interview with GovoritMoskva radio station.

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, took the opposite tack. “It’s great that we have films like this. A film should provoke discussion,” Peskov said. He also said he would support "Leviathan" in the Oscar race. That put a stop to officials’ commenting on it, but not the numerous discussions on social media.

Traditional storytelling

Leviathan’s story-telling style is conservative – it is a traditional drama, with spelled out motives and heavy-handed symbolism. Yet it’s truthful and powerful, and, despite showing the grim life of a poor village, heightened and poetic.

A corrupted mayor of a small town in Russia’s north is after a piece of land where Kolya, a talented car mechanic and a drinker, built his house. Kolya, his wife, and son will have to leave. Kolya’s army friend, a lawyer from Moscow, digs up some dirt on the mayor. Inevitably, it all ends tragically.

Many saw the film as an attack on Russians. Viewers also complained that the film is too grim and hopeless, with no “positive characters”. “Many of us have enough fear in real life to be willing to experience it in cinema,” reads one of the Facebook comments.

Zvyagintsev also broke the rule about washing one’s dirty linen in public. Some commentators expressed concern about what foreigners might think. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin reflected on that same issue two centuries ago: “I, of course, despise my motherland but it vexes me if a foreigner shares this feeling with me”. 

Do Russians drink that much? Are they that helpless in the face of corrupt authority? Are rotary dial phones still used? Many believe the director figured out that the film that answers ‘yes’ to all those questions would please Europeans and Americans.

“If not for the beautiful landscapes, the film would be just a politically biased pamphlet. It reminds me of the self-flagellation films of Perestroika,” one commentator notes. 

“If Leviathan was not a chernukha, nobody in America would pay any attention to it,” another comment runs, referring to films popular in the 1990s characterised by a pessimistic and cynical view of Soviet society.

Those who loved the film argue that these kinds of stories happen in Russia all the time. The film starts with crashing waves, and the fear of a wild force threatening destruction is a feeling known to anyone who has lived in Russia long enough. 

“From the beginning, I felt myself in Serebryakov’s [actor who played Kolya] place. The scariest thing is, in all the circumstances, I would act exactly the same. And the outcome would be the same. There are thousands of stories like this. I’ve been working as a lawyer for 18 years, and I say thank you to Zvyagintsev,” a supporter of the film writes.

“Don’t know about others but it sparks a healthy anger in me, and energy to resist. I want to get up and throw out this ‘authority instituted by God’… It urges you to change things,” another comment reads.

The reaction to Zvyagintsev’s film shows how dramatically the mood has changed in Russia, where anti-nationalist sentiment is suffocated by the government and its supporters as the economy tanks and the war in Ukraine grinds on. Made in 2013, Alexander Veledinsky's “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away” was also set in a deprived province with a drinker as protagonist, but went almost unnoticed compared to the hysteria that has followed “Leviathan”.

“Leviathan unexpectedly and probably to the authors’ surprise, turned out to be an ideal film for Russia in the era of trolling,” film critic Stanislav Zelvensky says in his review for “A country where trolling has become the basis of at first internal and then foreign policy, desperately needs a statement from which one can step up… The main thing is to have the opportunity to comment, then comment on the comment, and then softly dive into exhausting fight leading nowhere.”

FILM REVIEW: Few Russians left unmoved by “Leviathan” of a movie

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