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In Russia's Leviathan Drama, Pirates Are Playing The Hero

  • Daisy Sindelar

Leviathan offers a stark portrayal of one Russian man's struggle against a corrupt politician trying to seize his family's land.

Leviathan offers a stark portrayal of one Russian man's struggle against a corrupt politician trying to seize his family's land.

Accepting his Golden Globe award for best foreign film on January 11, Leviathan producer Aleksandr Rodnyansky said his movie appealed to a global audience because its gritty plot was "absolutely universal."

But the film, which portrays one man's struggle against a corrupt politician trying to seize his family's land, may strike many as absolutely specific -- and absolutely about Russia.

The Russian government seems to think so too. The film, partially financed by the Russian Culture Ministry and a top contender for next month's Academy Awards, has only had a limited release at home.

The Kremlin claims the film, tentatively due to hit Russian theaters on February 5, must be edited to remove rough language in accordance with last year's controversial law banning swearing in the arts.

But some suspect the film has been held back because of its implicit criticism of the Russian government. Some officials -- including Tatyana Trubilina, a local councilwoman in the bleak coastal village of Teriberka, where much of Leviathan was shot -- are adamant the film should never make it to the big screen.

"It didn't impress me," Trubilina told the FlashNord agency. "It made it look like we're all just alcoholics living in our own filth...I have no idea who would find it worth watching."

But as Leviathan draws growing accolades abroad -- the film won a Cannes screenwriting award and took top international honors at the Munich Film Festival -- a growing number of Russians are turning to bootleggers for a chance to see the movie in its natural, uncut state.

ALSO READ: Russian Film Leviathan Nominated For Oscar

Russian social media has overflowed in recent days with links to high-definition AVI and Torrent files to the film in its full length of two hours and 20 minutes. The first version appeared January 10, one day before Leviathan's Golden Globe win.

An 'Abomination'

One LiveJournal user, sharing a file, wrote, "Nearly everyone [abroad] is shouting and praising this film, but just a handful have seen it here." A Twitter user, forwarding another link, said simply, "Watch for free and without censorship."

The film was also briefly available on YouTube with English and French subtitles, but has since been taken down.

Illegal downloads are normally the bane of filmmakers' existence, depriving them of revenue and quality control. But Rodnyansky says he and director Andrei Zvyagintsev have no intention of prosecuting pirates sharing their film.

"All the films that are up for an Oscar have been pirated at one time or another," Rodnyansky told the Russian News Service. "We're happy when people are debating the film."

If Twitter is any indication, public opinion in Russia appears mixed. One Twitter user wrote, "I managed to download and watch Leviathan. An absolutely real and truthful film that should touch a nerve with all our government lackeys." Meanwhile, actor Ivan Okhlobystin, a trollish fixture on Twitter, dismissed the movie as an "abomination."

The government, meanwhile, appears to be battling two contradictory emotions. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky -- who last month said he would not finance filmmakers operating on a "Russia-is-sh*t" basis -- says he personally dislikes Leviathan but enjoys its prize-winning qualities.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev

"One of our own movies has received the Golden Globe for the first time in nearly half a century," Medinsky said on January 12, referring to Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace, which took the award in 1969.

Medinsky went on to note that films with government backing have taken more than 30 awards in the past year. "It's an excellent incentive for us to keep working on restoring Russia's status as one of the leading filmmaking countries in the world."

Indirectly Political?

That status may rise even higher if Leviathan brings home an Oscar, last seen in Russia in 1994 for Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt By The Sun.

Leviathan is widely expected to be among the Academy Awards' five foreign-language finalists, to be announced in Los Angeles on January 15.

It is also a favorite among film critics, who have tapped it and a second film, "Ida" by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, as the likeliest to win. Leviathan, with its newly minted Golden Globe, has a possible statistical advantage -- the foreign-film Golden Globe winners for the past four years have all gone on to take the Oscar as well.

Mark Olsen, a film writer with the Los Angeles Times, suggests Russian distributors of Leviathan may have deliberately held back the film's release in order for it to land just weeks ahead of the Academy Awards, to be held on February 22. "While it could be politics, it could also just be trying to get the most publicity out of the awards campaign that they can," he says.

Leviathan's skewering of contemporary Russian life may polarize audiences and government officials at home. But Olsen says its subtle style may prove pleasing to Academy voters, who have shown a repeated preference for indirect political messaging in their choice of foreign-film winners -- like the Iranian family drama A Separation, which took home the 2011 Oscar, and last year's winner from Italy, The Great Beauty, which was seen as an allegorical look at the excesses of the Berlusconi era.

"There is a lot in Leviathan that I think can only really be seen as political and a direct critique of the contemporary political climate in Russia, but when the filmmakers talk about the film, they like to make it as general as they can," says Olsen. "The foreign-language category likes for these movies to somehow feel connected to the world but they don't necessarily like them to be directly political."

* Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the source of the quote in the first paragraph. It was producer Aleksandr Rodnyansky, not director Andrei Zvyagintsev.