The Russian film "Leviathan" is the story of a man fighting to save his home, his livelihood, his family, his dignity and his life, building a sweep and scope that is at once personal and epic.
Its dense combination of inspirations may include the biblical Book of Job, Heinrich von Kleist's medieval-set novella "Michael Kohlhaas," Thomas Hobbes' treatise "Leviathan" and the true story of a Colorado man who went on a rampage in 2004 with a bulldozer, but the film manages, nevertheless, to have the deep, expansive feel of a classic Russian novel.
Co-written and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the film won the screenplay prize when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It has been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Spirit Award and has made numerous critics' top 10 lists. And in a surprise to many, though the office of the film's venally corrupt small-town mayor prominently features a portrait of Vladimir Putin, Russia entered it as that country's submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film. "Leviathan" recently made the academy's shortlist of nine films now vying for the final five nominations.
Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic and repairman in a small fishing village in northern Russia. He lives and works on land that has long been in his family, along with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son by a previous marriage. The town's mayor (Roman Madyanov) wants the land for himself and will do anything to get it. Kolya's old friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in Moscow, comes to help with the legal proceedings, armed with damning evidence against the mayor. The situation escalates from there.
"You can say that it's a tragedy of human destiny," Zvyagintsev said during a recent interview in Los Angeles sitting with his producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, and a translator. At times Rodnyansky would take over translating for Zvyagintsev, perhaps because he had a good idea what the filmmaker wanted to say, and then roll into speaking for himself.
Ever since its Cannes premiere, Zvyagintsev has seemed guarded in what he says regarding any implied criticism of the current Russian government and its policies. For him, the film is simply bigger than that.
"Perhaps there is a social criticism; however, it's secondary," he said, noting that he does not have a television and frequently learns about the news of the day from Rodnyansky. "It's more about the parallel to the Book of Job, and what really makes me happy is that audiences abroad really understand that and take it with them.
"Perhaps people read things into it and they see social criticism. People are very involved in the political reality because that's what people know."
Against the magnificent landscapes surrounding the northern village of Teriberka on the Barents Sea, the film was shot over 67 days in late 2013. A large production by the standards of Russian filmmaking, the film cost about $7.5 million. The unexpected twist: About 35% of the funding came from the Russian government.
"This is not a position of black and white logic, never," Rodnyansky said. "In a complicated country like Russia, with such a culture and such a politics, it's always unpredictable. You can't judge what's going to happen. So that's why we prefer just to achieve what we need."
Zvyagintsev, 50, comes from the Siberian town of Novosibirsk. While studying to be an actor, he saw the Al Pacino films "Bobby Deerfield" and "… And Justice for All" and was inspired to move to Moscow to dedicate himself fully to the craft in the early 1980s. After seeing Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura," he found a desire to be a director.
He worked for a few years as a janitor and street cleaner, even sweeping the street in front of the home of actor Andrey Smirnov, who would later star in Zvyagintsev's 2011 film, "Elena." Zvyagintsev's feature directing debut, "The Return," won the top prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
It was while shooting a short for the 2008 omnibus "New York, I Love You" that Zvyagintsev first heard the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, a Colorado man who in 2004 demolished buildings with a bulldozer before taking his own life, in part over a protracted zoning dispute.
Although Heemeyer's story was Zvyagintsev's initial inspiration — "It was like a finished script, I already had a vision of what to do," he said — he and co-writer Oleg Negin decided its conclusion didn't quite fit the Russian temperament.
"We decided that this kind of ending, this kind of rebellion against power, in Russia it was much more typical to have something about obedience and patience," Zvyagintsev said. "That's much more the Russian character. And it's much more tragic."
Without giving away some the film's astonishing twists — as Rodnyansky noted, the term "spoiler" translates in Russian as "spoiler" — in one sequence a drunken afternoon picnic-slash-shooting party goes very wrong. What starts as fun with target shooting at portraits of former Russian leaders soon becomes a melee of hurt feelings and sudden revelations.
"This kind of scene could have happened in real life in many places," Rodnyansky said of common folks taking potshots at their former leaders. "This is not something created in order to demonstrate a political agenda. This is much more about those people, who don't trust, who don't believe, who are very skeptical and cynical. And that's the standard of life."
Added Zvyagintsev, "Regardless, these are cheap shots. They don't get to the top, and the people don't believe they are capable of influencing the very top, so they do these kinds of things."
Said Rodnyansky: "They don't believe they are able to change the position of the stars in the sky."
Yet in some ways that seems to be exactly what the filmmakers behind "Leviathan" have done, making a film critical of Russia with partial state funding and then being selected by a committee of filmmakers to represent the country on one of the world's most prestigious stages, the Academy Awards.
All this even as the current minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, was quoted this year as saying he did not like the movie.
"Basically, this is very much about Russia," Rodnyansky said. "This is pretty much considered a critical movie, but it's from an extremely important director, who has never done anything political or controversial, and on the other side, we have government support. So it happens.
"By the same logic, we were fighting and we never surrendered. It's always in Russia, you can say, 'That's bad,' and make it worse, or you can try to do what you need or do what you believe is important to do."
The film is scheduled to open in Russia in February, with minimal allowances for a recent law banning profanity in the arts. As to how he feels about this film being the Russian Oscar submission, Zvyagintsev straightened himself and allowed a small smile.
"It's a pleasant surprise."