High Hopes and Mixed Feelings About Russia's Oscar Nominee

A scene from "Leviathan." Image from Indiewire.

A scene from “Leviathan.” Image from Indiewire.

After months of global media adoration, the Russian film “Leviathan” has finally been released in Russian theaters. The film’s scathing and moving portrayal of small-town corruption made it a sensation at Cannes and a critical darling, but prior to its February 5 official release, only pirated online copies of the film were available to Russians. The film finished its first week in fourth place at the Russian box office, but it has become one of the most widely discussed Russian films in decades, with commentators of all stripes taking to the Internet to voice their opinions.

Like critics abroad, many Russians were quick to praise the film both for its artistic quality and portrayal of the Russian condition. After “Leviathan” won a Golden Globe, Nadia Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot and Mediazona lauded the creators and the film, which she called “a punk prayer.”

А также благодарю за чуткость и редкую для художника страсть – вслушиваться в свое время, принюхиваться к нему, впитывать его в себя. Но это именно то состояние души, которое отличает художника от спящего котика. Ценю за патриотизм – ведь Бог свидетель тому, как легко хорошему режиссеру (а Звягинцев таков) уехать из России и снимать коммерческое кино про любовь и солнце. 

I would also like to thank them for their attentiveness and their rare artistic passion—to listen carefully to our time, to sniff it out, to absorb it into themselves. This is the exact state of mind that separates the artist from the sleeping cat. I appreciate this patriotism, because god knows how easy it is for a good director like (Andrey) Zvyagintsev to leave Russia and shoot commercial films about love and the sun.

Reporter Anton Krasovsky, who famously came out on-air in protest of Russia’s LGBT policy, drew attention to the religious message of the film, filled with cautious hope, despite the darkness and despair many saw.

Не было со времен «Андрея Рублева» более христианского русского кино. Кино о хождении по мукам, о крестном пути, о лжи и фарисействе, о страдании и горе. Но и о настоящем тихом Боге, о вечной жизни, о любви и вере. Даже там, где эти любовь и вера должны были бы сгнить, как сгнили тут и Иона, и кит. А остались только голые ребра, оргАном торчащие у скал. Но не этими ребрами, другими – нашими – строится Церковь. И построится. Вот увидите. Или не увидите. Богу, впрочем, все равно. 

Not since “Andrei Rublev” has there been a more Christian Russian film. It is a movie about purgatory, the path of the cross, of lies and hypocrisy, suffering and grief. But it also about the true quiet God, eternal life, love and faith. Even where faith and love should have rotted, like Jonah and the whale. And only the bare ribs remain, organ-like, on the rocks (likely a reference to a scene in the film). But it is not with these ribs, but with our own that the Church is built. And build it we shall. You'll see. Or maybe you won't. To God it’s all the same.

One devout fan, Slava Smirnov, even created a website asking the nearly 6 million people who had downloaded pirated copies of the film to donate the equivalent of a movie ticket to be given to the film’s makers. The film's director Andrey Zvyagintsev however, opted to donate the 1 million rubles raised by the site to Gift of Life (Подари жизнь), a Russian charity providing assistance to children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

The film’s open portrayal of corruption at every level of Russian life prompted a critical reaction by Russian authorities. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s Minister of Culture, approved of the film as a universal parable, but criticized it for being devoid of any positive characters and bearing no resemblance to real Russia.

Other government officials reiterated Medinsky’s criticism that the film played on anti-Russian sentiment abroad in order to win awards. Prominent Russian politician and commentator Sergey Markov took to Facebook to bemoan the mob mentality of foreign critics.

Фильм Звягинцева Левиафан это типичная российская чернуха? Нет, не типичная. Это фактически внешний заказ. Гос департамента? Нет. […] Профессионально сделанный получился антипутинский кино манифест, проклинающий российскую государственную бюрократическую машину, заодно и антиправославный акцент не забыли. Это фильм времен новой холодной войны Запада против России, […] Призы на фестивалях получает не российский фильм, а антироссийский.

Is Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan a typical “dark side of Russia” story? No, it's not. It is, in fact, made to external order. Order of the Department of State? No. […] This movie is a professionally made anti-Putin cinema manifesto, cursing the Russian bureaucratic machine with an anti-Orthodox accent. This is a film of the new cold war of the West against Russia, […] Awards at these film festivals are won not by a Russian film, but an anti-Russian film.

Тhe film has also attracted attention for its critical portrayal of a local Russian Orthodox priest. While some clergymen, including those from the diocese where the film was made, praised the film for prompting important discussion, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership was less than thrilled. In a popular post on the Orthodox Church’s website, Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich lambasted the film as being both of poor artistic quality and out of touch with the reality of Russia.

По-моему, «Левиафан» — это просто слабый фильм, вот и все. Он не тянет на притчу, потому что в нем нет любви. Он не тянет на «универсальную историю для всего человечества», потому что в нем слишком много сиюминутной политической конъюнктуры. Он не тянет на «зеркало русской жизни», потому что авторы этой жизни не знают и смешат на каждом шагу…Поэтому «Левиафан» — это одна сплошная имитация. 

In my opinion, “Leviathan” is simply a weak film, that’s it. It's not strong enough to be a parable, because there is no love in it. It does not pass for a “universal history of mankind” because it is too short-sighted politically. It is not a “mirror of Russian life” because the filmmakers do not understand Russian life and make us laugh at every step they make… As a result, “Leviathan” is one continuous imitation. 

Though the film has already caused a considerable uproar in Russia and abroad, the furor will likely only grow after the Academy Awards ceremony, where the film has been nominated and is widely expected to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film. Though Russia's Culture Minister Medinsky has admitted that he will root for the film at the Oscars, a victory for “Leviathan” might mean more unwanted negative attention for Russia, as the Kremlin faces increasing criticism for its actions abroad in Ukraine and the deteriorating human rights situation within the country.

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