Russian Oscar-nominated film raises hackles at home

‘Leviathan’ a story of righteous man forsaken by monstrous workings of the Russian system

It's a long time since a Russian film won an Oscar but Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan could be about to change that. Yet even as this dark, hard-hitting satire of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia was nominated for an Academy Award last week, Leviathan was being denounced in the motherland as being over the top and unpatriotic.

Partly inspired by the biblical Book of Job, Leviathan tells the story of a righteous man forsaken by friends, family and the monstrous workings of the Russian system.

Everything is rotten beneath the surface in the bleak, coastal town in northwest Russia where Nikolai, a car mechanic, fights an epic battle with the local mayor bent on expropriating his sea-view property. Most of the cast – including the villainous mayor, corrupt police, a conniving priest and Nikolai’s sexy but ultimately unfaithful wife – swills vodka, often straight from the bottle.

Leviathan is a "cross between Dostoevsky and The Godfather", according to an official at Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing it in America.

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Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year, Leviathan has scooped up international prizes including the best screenwriting award in Cannes, best film at the London Film Festival and a Global Gold in Los Angeles.

In what could be the film's crowning glory, it was among five finalists nominated last week for the best foreign film in the 2015 Academy Awards.

Victory in Hollywood would be a major boost for Russia's film industry that, although not wanting for talent, has not landed an Oscar for two decades. Even so, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's culture minister, was struggling last week to forgive Leviathan for its "existential hopelessness" and "off-the-deep-end" portrayal of the church.

Although a gifted director, Zvyagintsev had fallen into the trap of pandering to negative western stereotypes about Russia in pursuit of international acclaim, Medinsky told the Izvestiya newspaper.

Leviathan could just as well have been set in "Colorado. the Arab suburbs of Paris or depressed regions of southern Italy. Only in that case it would probably not have received so many prestigious prizes."

Leviathan has not yet been released in Russia, where it is being doctored to comply with new legislation banning the use of expletives. Nonetheless, the Oscar nomination has fuelled a debate about whether a film so harsh in its depiction of Russian life should ever be screened in the nation's cinemas.

Yes, say the likes of Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Ekaterinburg and an anti-corruption crusader, who have praised Leviathan for its daring and brutal honesty. Definitely not, says Kirill Frolov, a Russian Orthodox Christian activist. "Leviathan is evil and there is no place for evil in the cinema," he wrote on Facebook.

In the remote Russian seaside town of Teribek where Leviathan was shot, Tatiana Trubilina, the head of the local administration, said there was no point in going to see such an exaggeratedly grim film. "It gives the impression that we're all alcoholics here living in our own filth," she told news agencies.

Among the more unusual theories going around is one that attributes Leviathan's success to a western, anti-Putin plot. US secret services could be resorting to cold war-era tricks, promoting Leviathan to stoke discontent in Russia, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the popular, pro-Kremlin daily.

While regretting that the culture ministry had ever agreed to help fund Leviathan, Medinsky said he was against censorship and would not block screening of the film in Russia. He may have to think again.

Anonymous sources at the culture ministry told Interfax that officials were considering rules to ban the distribution of films that “defame the national culture” and “undermine national unity”.