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Academy Awards

How award-winning film Leviathan has divided Russia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 11:16pm

It was a chilly Thursday afternoon, but Moscow's downtown Rolan cinema was packed with filmgoers.

Many in the eager crowd said they rarely went to the movies these days, but were intrigued by the notion of being among the first in Russia to attend a screening of a Golden Globe winner, Leviathan, which is turning into a political hot potato like nothing else here since the fall of communism.

Set against the backdrop of bleakly scenic northern landscapes and gloomily decayed interiors of a provincial seaport, Leviathan tells the chillingly Job-like story of a common man and his family crushed by a corrupt government.

Vladimir Konnov, a 51-year-old Moscow businessman, said the story reminded him of his own life, having had real estate property unfairly confiscated. "I am afraid that this movie will be seen by only those who already know Russian life is exactly the way it is shown," he says. "But those who vote for the corrupt authorities and support their policies that are ruining the country are the ones who must see this movie by all means as an eye-opener before it is too late."

Leviathan, which casts the government and the Russian Orthodox Church in a questionable light, opened in 650 cinemas across Russia on February 5. Many Russians have already seen it on their computers, because the film was illegally uploaded onto the internet weeks ago.

Unlike with another recent Sony vehicle, The Interview, which raised hackles and perhaps computer hacks by North Korea, the Kremlin has issued no threats over the release of Leviathan. Indeed, the film is partially funded by the government and is the nation's official nominee for the foreign-language Academy Award, which will be handed out tomorrow morning Hong Kong time.

However, that hasn't stopped Russian officials from issuing scathing reviews, with a venom unheard of since the late 1980s perestroika era as the Soviet Union teetered before disbanding. Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky publicly condemned Leviathan for its indictment of the government and the church. "Movies that aim not only to criticise the current authorities but openly spit on them, filled with an air of hopelessness and senselessness of our existence, should not be funded at the expense of the taxpayers," he said in a recent interview with the daily Izvestia. "No matter how much the writers make [the movie characters] drink vodka from the bottle and swear, that doesn't make them real Russians."

Echoing that criticism is an election adviser to President Vladimir Putin, who has advised the film's director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, to kneel in Red Square and publicly ask for forgiveness.

"This movie is openly anti-Russian and is full of lies about Russia and portrays its residents as suppressed by the evil Russian authorities," said the adviser, Sergei Markov, who's also the vice-president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. "This film will be used to inspire the continuing extermination of Russian people in Ukraine's Donbas to further discredit the Russian leadership in the eyes of the world."

As for the president, "I don't think [Putin] has seen the movie", spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "He has never said anything about it."

Zvyagintsev has spoken guardedly about his film's political message, while expressing hope that it will help make Russia a better place. "All the ideas, all the sweat and blood of the movie serve to tell the truth about what is happening to man in general and in this given moment," he said in Moscow after a media showing. "They say: 'Why wash the dirty laundry in public?' We wash the dirty laundry in public to make our house cleaner."

Between mounting injustices, and swigs of vodka, the characters on the screen do not specifically discuss Putin or national politics. But in a pivotal scene, a portrait of Putin hangs on the wall of a corrupt small-town mayor's office - eyes half-smiling and seemingly following the action below, Mona Lisa-like - as a discussion of local corruption ensues.

Many Russian films focus on official corruption. But Leviathan appears to be drawing louder and more pointed criticism because of its international recognition, with no institution devoid of cancerous cells, including the last of the untouchables, the church.

Los Angeles Times

Leviathan opens on March 5