It was a chilly Thursday afternoon, but the downtown Rolan theater was packed with mostly middle-aged and older filmgoers. A later show had sold out days earlier.
Many in the eager crowd said they rarely go to the movies these days but were intrigued by the notion of being among the first in Russia to attend a screening of the nation’s Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner, “Leviathan,” which is turning into a political hot potato like nothing else here since the fall of communism.
Set against the backdrop of austerely scenic northern landscapes and gloomily decayed interiors of a small provincial seaport, “Leviathan” tells the chillingly Job-like story of a common man and his family crushed by a corrupt government.
Vladimir Konnov, a 51-year-old Moscow businessman, said the story reminded him of his own life, having had real estate property unfairly confiscated by public officials and police.
“I am afraid that this movie will only be seen by those who already know that Russian life is exactly the way it is shown,” Konnov said. “But those who vote for the corrupt authorities, and support their policies that are ruining the country, are the ones who must see this movie by all means as an eye-opener before it is too late.”
“Leviathan,” which casts government authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church in questionable light, opened in 650 theaters across Russia on Thursday. Many Russians have already seen it on their computers, because the film, distributed in the U.S. by Sony Picture Classics, was illegally uploaded on the Internet weeks ago.
Unlike with another recent Sony vehicle, “The Interview,” which raised hackles and perhaps computer hacks by North Korea, the Kremlin has issued no threats over the release of “Leviathan.”
Indeed, the film, conceived in 2008 and shot in 2013, was partially funded by the government and is the nation’s official nominee for the foreign language Academy Award, which will be handed out Feb. 22.
That hasn’t stopped Russian officials from issuing scathing reviews, with a venom unheard since the late 1980s perestroika era as the Soviet Union teetered before disbanding.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, for one, has publicly condemned “Leviathan” for its indictment of authorities and the church.
“Movies that aim not only to criticize the current authorities but openly spit on them, filled with an air of hopelessness and senselessness of our existence, should not be funded at the expense of the taxpayers,” Medinsky said in a recent interview with the daily Izvestia.
“No matter how much the writers would make [the movie characters] drink vodka from the bottle and swear, that doesn’t make them real Russians.”
Echoing that criticism is an election advisor to President Vladimir Putin, who has advised the film’s director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, to kneel in Red Square and publicly ask for forgiveness.
“This movie is openly anti-Russian and is full of lies about Russia and portrays its residents as suppressed by the evil Russian authorities,” said the advisor, Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. “This film will be used to inspire the continuing extermination of Russian people in Ukraine’s Donbas to further discredit the Russian leadership in the eyes of the world.”
As for the president himself: “I don’t think [Putin] has seen the movie,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Los Angeles Times. “He has never said anything about it.”
Zvyagintsev has spoken guardedly about his film’s political message, while expressing hope that it will help make Russia a better place.
“All the ideas, all the sweat and blood of the movie serve to tell the truth about what is happening to man in general and now in this given moment,” he said after a media showing in Moscow last month. “They say, why wash the dirty laundry in public? We need to wash the dirty laundry in public to make our house cleaner.”
Between mounting injustices, and swigs of vodka, the characters on the screen do not specifically discuss Putin or national politics. But in a pivotal scene, a portrait of Putin hangs prominently on the wall of a corrupt small-town mayor’s office — eyes half-smiling and seemingly following the action below, Mona Lisa-like — as a discussion of local corruption ensues.
In another scene, the oft-drunk mayor seeks advice from a somber regional priest who instructs him, “Every power is from God. And power means force. Resolve your problems with force or the enemy may think you are weak.”
Russian Patriarchy spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin, another critic of the film, said in recent televised remarks, “It is clear that the authors wanted to suit Western ideas of Russia: vodka, constant unrestrained fornication, the horrible state system.
“The church is also portrayed in a terrible light.”
Many Russian films focus on official corruption. But “Leviathan” appears to be drawing louder and more pointed criticism because of its international recognition and its epic sweep as it homes in on the graft, with no institution devoid of cancerous cells, including the last of the untouchables, the church.
“‘Leviathan’ presents an exceptionally truthful picture of the current life in Russia, to the smallest detail,” film director Oleg Dorman said. “Corruption is just an element of the story in which the viewer reads a much bigger general picture of the impending death of the nation, both moral and social.”
The film’s producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, acknowledges that not a single Russian official has congratulated the filmmakers on their foreign success. If anything, though, he said he hopes the official criticism and discussion will heat up interest among Russian moviegoers.
“Our movie is both a reference to the biblical tragedy of Job and Leviathan, a merciless sea monster without fear, and a current tragedy of an ordinary man destroyed by the merciless and corrupt state machine,” Rodnyansky said. “Zvyagintsev as a very talented director made this movie totally authentic, honest and convincing, something which may not be exactly welcome here today.”