With just 2 weeks left to the Oscar awards ceremony, Crossing the Baltic takes a look at the nominees from the Baltic rim. This week the focus is on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan.
by Mateusz Zatoński
The past months have been a rewarding time for Baltic cinema. Many movies produced in the region made a splash in the box office and review columns worldwide. Undoubtedly the two most successful of these have been the Russian Leviathan and the Polish-Danish Ida.
Leviathan won the award for Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and most recently became the first Russian movie since 1969 to bag the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film. Even the BBC Radio One film correspondent, talking about the potential Oscar contenders, gave Leviathan what one can only imagine is the highest praise from an Anglophone film critic, calling it ‘a great movie in any language’. Meanwhile, Ida has collected well over 50 international awards to date, including the European Film Award and the Golden Frog at the Camerimage festival. The movies have been chosen as Best Films of two consequent BFI London Film Festivals (Ida in 2013 and Leviathan in 2014).
The culmination of these successes will come later this month at the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles where the two movies will be competing, together with the Estonian-Georgian co-production Tangerines, for the Best Foreign Language Film Award. While Tangerines is considered a long-shot by critics, it is widely expected that either Ida or Leviathan will take home the Oscar. However, despite having enjoyed great acclaim abroad, Ida and Leviathan have stirred fierce polemics in their home countries.
Leviathan, directed by the acclaimed Andrey Zvyagintsev, tells the story of Nikolai (Alexey Serebryakov), a mechanic inhabiting a provincial town on the Barents Sea. Nikolai takes on the local powers that be who attempt to take away his sea-side property. A contemporary tale of a vodka-fuelled Job, minus the divine intervention and without a happy-ending, is a reasonably accurate way to summarize the plot. Needless to say, many in the political and opinion-making circles did not like the movies incredibly bleak narrative in which a corrupt mayor (brilliantly portrayed by Roman Maydanov), whose office is adorned with a picture of an extremely young-looking Putin, destroys the life of the ‘everyman’ Nikolai with the tacit assent of the local Orthodox bishop. The movie has received a bashing from every direction. The mayor of Teriberka, the town where Leviathan was filmed, accused it of being ‘anti-Russian’. Orthodox groups called for the film to be banned. The Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky enigmatically declared that Leviathan ‘was good, but he didn’t like it’. The film was snubbed by the Russian television and received a very limited run in the country’s cinemas.
The Western media were quick to pick up on these criticisms, elevating Leviathan to the rank of Russia’s foremost oppositional chef-d’œuvre and Zvyagintsev to the role of a modern Boris Pasternak. The Guardian described it as ‘Putin-bashing’ and The Atlantic called it an ‘Incisive Take On Russia Even Putin Couldn’t Ignore’. The New Yorker decried the ‘Campaign Against Leviathan in Russia’. However, this being Russia, things are not that simple. Leviathan was co-funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture which put up 37 million rubles, or about one-third of the film’s budget. It also must be remembered that Leviathan is a contender for the Oscars precisely because it was put forward by the country’s Oscar-nomination committee.
Zvyagintsev himself has stated that the plot is not inspired by Russian politics, but by the story of an American welder Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004 went on a demolition frenzy with his bulldozer in a Colorado town after losing a zoning dispute. The director is fond of repeating that the film is about universals such as humanity and fate and frequently brings up the anecdote of being approached by a Mexican from LA who told him that if you ‘put in tequila instead of vodka and change the cold of Russia to the heat of California and this can be a story about us’.
While these might be just declarations intended to placate the Russian authorities, it does appear that Zvyagintsev genuinely believes that his picture is a universal parable designed to tell us more about the human condition than about administration of a town in provincial Russia. The problem lies in the fact that the movie only truly achieves greatness when it focuses on the latter. This is largely due to the film’s flagrant lack of subtlety – the vodka keeps flowing in copious amounts, the landscapes are bleak and endless, the corruption blatant, and the threat of violence constant. This works very well for the film’s most memorable scenes exposing the pathologies of modern Russia – endemic corruption permeating the tightly-knit network of power, the disgusting political involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church, the pathology of alcoholism ravaging the country’s male population, Russia’s turbulent, scarring and not-so-distant Communist past. Perhaps one of the most revealing and lasting images in the movie is that of a shuttle bus at dawn, packed with the town’s women traveling to the local fish factory where every day they labour relentlessly to keep the country’s economy afloat as their husbands recover from last night’s drinking.
However, this same lack of subtlety becomes a liability when Zvyagintsev begins to brood in Hobbesian philosophy, tries to draw lessons from the Old Testament, or ask ephemeral questions about the inescapability of fate. The director throws these existential parables at the audience one after another as if stacking aces on a poker table. Ultimately they end up appearing at best as irrelevant, and at worst as reductionist and lazy attempts at universalising the real and very particular socio-political reality in which his film’s protagonists live and die.
Come back next week to read about the controversies surrounding the Oscar-nominated Ida and for our take on that film.