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Russia's Oscar Hopeful Is Dark, Critical -- And Patriotic

A still from the Russian film Leviathan, which is one of the favorites for this year's foreign-language Oscar.
A still from the Russian film Leviathan, which is one of the favorites for this year's foreign-language Oscar.

In the film Leviathan, a drunken mechanic in a far northern Russian town clashes with a greedy, drunken mayor who is determined to expropriate the man's land for his own mansion.

The mayor contemptuously refers to his subjects as "insects" and, in a fit of vodka-fuelled honesty, pulls back the curtain on government in his fiefdom.

"You have never had any rights," he slurs furiously. "You don't have any. And you never will."

A third character, the mechanic's drunken lawyer, spends his time vainly citing laws and legal precedents that are all swept away by official mockery and contempt.

So it may strike some as odd that the Russian government paid for about 35 percent of the film. And has nominated it as Russia's candidate at the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

This is all the more surprising given that Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has said the government will not provide funds "to people who not only criticize, but smear the elected authorities."

"I mean those who make movies based on the 'Russia-is-shit' principle," he told the website last month.

Knowing what Russian officials are thinking is always difficult: did Leviathan fall through the cracks, with its implied criticism of President Vladimir Putin's Russia going unnoticed by top officials like Medinsky? Or is the Kremlin hoping for an Olympic-sized PR boost to Russia's battered international image by potentially taking home a high-profile award for a film that relatively few will see? One clue will be seeing how long and how widely it plays in theaters inside Russia itself when it is released there in February.

Award-winning filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev, who directed Leviathan, says he too is surprised by the Russian government's support.

"Our understanding of what is patriotic and what is not, unfortunately, most likely, differs from the opinion of the Culture Ministry," he told RFE/RL's Current Time TV.

'Forthrightly Russian'

Zvyagintsev takes his cues on "patriotism" from Leo Tolstoy, saying that "patriotism that covers up the dark areas, the problematic areas of society and that says everything is fine, that we are the best and most wonderful…is the position of an ignorant, unenlightened adolescent who does not want to know the truth."

He notes, however, that the decisions to support the film were made by committees of respected experts who studied the script and the project.

It is a deeply Russian film. The Guardian has written that "Leviathan could not be more forthrightly Russian if a bear were to waltz through its opening credits playing a balalaika."

Zvyagintsev notes it is firmly in the tradition of great Russian social critics and satirists such as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov.

But, at the same time, Zvyagintsev says, Leviathan is much broader. Critics routinely describe it as "Kafkaesque," evoking the spirit of German Jewish writer Franz Kafka.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev
Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev

Zvyagintsev said in an interview with Screen magazine last summer that Leviathan's plot was sort of inversely inspired by a 2004 case in the United States in which a man in a dispute with the local authorities used a bulldozer to destroy the town hall and the former mayor's house.

"All of this is universal -- it is the story of man on Earth, to have to cope with something soulless, somehow machine-like," Zyagintsov says. "This has always been the case. Including in Russia -- always."

"I speak about my country because I live here," he adds. "I consider myself a Russian who is rooted here and who knows, in my own way, what the 'Russian world' is."

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