I met the Russian film director Andrey Petrovich Zvyagintsev when he was a guest at the Haifa Film Festival last October for the screening of his film “Leviathan.” That was a few months after “Leviathan” competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. While the film won acclaim, it was only awarded the prize for best screenplay.
Even then, before the film reached the movie screens in its country of origin – it will be shown in Russia only this month – Zvyagintsev was very careful in speaking about its political messages. Only once during the interview, when I asked him whether an uprising of individuals against the corrupt establishment was likely, as he portrayed in his film, he did not answer the question directly, but gave me an ironic look whose meaning was obvious.
Still, the film quickly encountered resistance in Russia, as Tali Krupkin reported in Haaretz last week. One of its fiercest critics was Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture. Even though the film’s credits state that it was funded by Russia’s Culture Ministry – and there is no chance that Medinsky did not read the screenplay of “Leviathan” before approving its funding – the paradox only intensified after a 25-member committee chose the film, which won the Golden Globe award for best foreign film last month, to represent Russia in the Academy Awards.
When we met for a relaxed conversation in Haifa, Zvyagintsev, who is known as one who does not like to be interviewed, cooperated graciously and answered each of the questions at length, but chose to speak about the sources of the film and its style more than about its political statements, which are sharply critical of the Russian establishment and the Russian church.
This film, so Russian in its nature, was actually born in the United States. Zvyagintsev was in New York in 2008 when he heard the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, the owner of a small garage in Colorado who got into trouble with representatives of the municipality, which wished to take control of his land and his property. Heemeyer waged a prolonged legal battle against them, but lost in each phase of the process. Finally, on June 4, 2004, he used his specially-modified bulldozer to demolish the business that he had owned and had been taken from him. Then he drove the bulldozer to the municipality and destroyed 13 buildings, most of them official institutions such as the municipality building and the public library. The local police fired at Heemeyer – it is not clear to this day whether he fired as well – but nobody was hurt in the incident, which lasted more than two hours. When the bulldozer finally broke down, Heemeyer ended his life with a gunshot.
While Zvyagintsev thought at first about making a documentary or feature film about Heemeyer’s story, his producer persuaded him that it would be a kind of Western – and what did a Russian film director have to do with American-style Westerns? asks Zvyagintsev, laughing. Convinced that the story, which touched him deeply, had a universal element and was actually about the treatment of the establishment – any establishment – of the citizens under its protection and authority, he decided it would be the inspiration for a film he would make in Russia.
Zvyagintsev located his film in a coastal town in northwestern Russia, on the Barents Sea. The sea, which serves as a significant visual element in the film, is full of abandoned boats, and the skeletons of giant whales rest on the beach. The film’s protagonist is Kolya, a garage owner who lives with Lilia, his second wife, and Roma, his teenage son from his first marriage, in a house that has belonged to his family for generations and he renovated with love and care. When the mayor and a representative of the local church collude to take Kolya’s home, property and land from him, and the legal process that Kolya invokes against them ends in his defeat, he summons Dima, his friend from the army and a successful lawyer in Moscow, to the municipality.
In addition to telling the story of Kolya’s fight against the corrupt establishment and the church and how it affects his family relationships, the film wraps the plot – which is the story of an individual – in layers of strongly-expressed ideas and images. Although they run the risk of seeming pretentious at times, Zvyagintsev succeeds in creating an impressive balance between them. When I ask him whether he had wanted to wrap the individual story in a debate about the significance of faith and in images that give the film a cosmic and even a metaphysical dimension that represents the Russian soul’s aspiration toward a space that embraces the human essence, he laughs, but does not deny it. Without admitting it explicitly, he agrees that the film is very Russian in its essence and scope.
Asked where he got the idea for the film’s title, “Leviathan,” he says that it has many sources, and have to do with more than the whale skeletons on the beach that are supposed to symbolize Russia. He speaks of Kolya’s character as a kind of modern-day Job (whales are mentioned in one of Job’s exchanges with God, in which Job laments his bitter fate). A friend also showed him the work entitled “Leviathan” by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, which was published in 1651 and spoke, among other things, of society’s need for a strong centralized leadership.
Of course, in a conversation with Zvyagintsev about “Leviathan,” I cannot avoid touching on the film’s political aspects, which criticize the aggressiveness and corruption that typify Putin’s Russia. Zvyagintsev only laughs when I ask him how he thinks Russian audiences will react to the scene in which Kolya’s friends set up shooting targets with images of past leaders such Leonid Brezhnev, and one of the friends asks whether the time has not come to put Putin’s image on one of the targets as well. Zvyagintsev prefers to ignore the ramifications that the scene, and others that portray the rot within the church, could have in Russia.
He does not expect the film to be a great success in Russia, as his previous films were not either. In present-day Russia, he says, there are few movie theaters in proportion to the population, and films that are considered artistic often draw a small crowd.
When I ask him once more about the cosmic and metaphysical aspects of the film, his expression becomes serious and he tells me firmly – and this is one of the few times he addresses me directly in Russian, which I do not understand, rather than the interpreter – that even if the film contains such aspects, at its center is the human being, as in his previous films. The human being is the center of the universe. Indeed, in my second viewing of the film, the specific story, and the precise description of the relationships within the family, captured my attention and touched me more deeply than the elements that wrap it.
The family is always at the center of Zvyagintsev’s films. A young-looking 50, he was born in 1964 in Novosibirsk and had planned an acting career at first. He performed in theaters in provincial towns in Russia, but when he came to Moscow he discovered that he had little chance of becoming a film star. He turned to directing, at first in television, and in 2003 he directed his first film, “The Return,” on a small budget, about two brothers who go on vacation with their father, whom they had never known while they were growing up. “The Return” was awarded the Golden Lion and the award for best debut film at the Venice Film Festival.
Zvyagintsev became well-known all over the world almost overnight. His sudden success made him anxious, as he felt that he would be tested in his next film. His second film, “The Banishment” (2007), a contestant in the Cannes Film Festival, told the story of a family that goes on vacation in a village where, in the tranquil and lovely setting, its tensions and secrets come to light. The film got a lukewarm reception and Zvyagintsev was accused of a tendency toward pretentiousness. The only prize the film was awarded was the Best Actor award, for Konstantin Lavronenko’s performance in the film (Lavronenko also starred in “The Return”).
In 2011, Zvyagintsev directed “Elena,” his most modest film to date. An excellent film, “Elena” levels sharp criticism at the socioeconomic gap in contemporary Russian society and the importance of money, which is that society’s main motivation.
“Leviathan,” in its scope, style and ambition, seems like the antithesis of “Elena,” but Zvyagintsev does not agree. He says that the two films complement one another in their description of the individual’s place in an aggressive society. Both “Elena” and “Leviathan” center around the human being and move from the individual story to dealing with questions of secular and even religious faith.
In general, faith is an emotionally-charged issue in Zvyagintsev’s personality and works. In a press conference that took place after I met with him, he was asked whether he was a believing person. He gave a wonderful answer: that while he did not believe in God, he knew that God existed.