Golden Globe Winner 'Leviathan' Spooks Russia’s Culture Chiefs

Politicians and clergy are saying the film blackens the country's good name and are tying to block it. However, many Russians are rallying behind the film after viewing it illegally.

Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin
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A still from the Russian film 'Leviathan.' A simple worker who takes no interest in politics.
A still from the Russian film 'Leviathan.' A simple worker who takes no interest in politics.Credit: AP
Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin

Hardly a movie, book or concert has stirred an uproar in Russia like the one after Russian film “Leviathan” won a Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Maybe Pussy Riot’s performance in a Moscow cathedral is the only real competitor in recent memory.

“Many people won’t like the film, but they will be forced to listen to what it has to say,” Pravda wrote about director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film. Still, the authorities are trying to prevent the distribution of the movie, which depicts the struggle of a simple man, a resident of a godforsaken town, against priests and government officials who covet his property.

Organizations linked to the Russian Orthodox Church want to ban the film, which is scheduled for release next month. Valeriy Grishko, who plays a corrupt priest in the movie, is also under attack. Clerics in the southern city of Samara, where Grishko directs the government theater, have asked the authorities to fire the actor because his character is “a cynical and dirty parody.”

This is only the second time a Russian film has won a Golden Globe after “War and Peace” in 1968, but state television only mentioned the 2015 victory after it discussed the stars’ outfits at the ceremony — a surprising decision considering Russia’s patriotic coverage of victories abroad.

Though “Leviathan” is also a candidate for an Oscar, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has considered a bill banning films that allegedly harm Russia’s image around the world — it was drawn up in response to Zvyagintsev’s work. The proposal was rejected this week, but there are still concerns about the movie’s fate, and Medinsky doesn’t conceal his hostility.

After the screening of the film at Cannes, Medinsky said his ministry shouldn’t finance films “whose main message is that ‘Russia is shit,’” an expression that rhymes in Russian and went viral in the country’s culture world. At a press conference, Medinsky also suggested the removal of works by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy from the school curriculum.

Undermining morale

“I remember studying ‘Anna Karenina’ in school — it was boring,” Medinsky said. Although President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet discussed the film, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a prize ceremony in Russia that it was a shame the work hadn’t been screened in Russia first.

“Although I haven’t seen the film ... I asked my subordinates to download a pirated version from the Internet, and they described to me in detail what happens,” Peskov said.

Other opponents aren’t worried about blackening Russia’s name but warn of the “hopelessness” depicted. “The film aspires to present difficult sights that undermine morale,” Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said this week. “Because of the country’s current situation, I think this is an anti-Russian film.”

Critics are comparing “Leviathan” to the realism wave of the 1980s, when for the first time Russian films addressed rape, prostitution and drugs.

“At the time we quickly got tired of this genre, and even outside Russia people no longer wanted to watch such films,” wrote liberal author and philosopher Dmitry Bykov. He notes that 30 years later “Leviathan” too presents a shocking picture to Russians.

“Today many people think that even when the frozen water is lapping at the Titanic, the choir should keep performing merrily,” he wrote. “And so portraying the less pleasant side of life is once again considered trailblazing.”

Many Russians have seen the pirated version; critics and cultural figures don’t hide that they’ve seen it too. Many Russians have defended the film after viewing it; young people are organizing and want to help get the movie distributed at theaters, and are willing to purchase tickets for others when the film is released.

The film may be popular because it depicts the life of a simple worker who served in the army, takes no interest in politics and doesn’t want to immigrate to the West or even move to Moscow. The lives of the protagonists, who use authentic language littered with profanity and rely on vodka to face reality, is light-years from the big-city dissidents despised by many Russians.

Zvyagintsev, the director, doesn’t condemn the masses who have seen the pirated edition.

“It’s amazing and surprising,” he told Russian business news channel RBC TV. “I heard about young people’s initiative to pay for tickets for other viewers — that means the film touched their hearts. I dreamed that the viewer would open his mind, cast off the nonsense he’s fed and watch the film. Then he’ll see whether he can spot the homeland we live in.”

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