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'Leviathan' A Dark Social Satire Of Russian Society


Russia's official entry to the Oscars this year is a bleak and scathing portrait of a corrupt and oppressive government. It's called "Leviathan." It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has earned rave reviews ever since. It opens in the U.S. this week. NPR's Bilal Qureshi has the story.


BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "Leviathan" opens with music by Philip Glass as meditative images of vast landscapes and ocean unfold onscreen. We're at the northern borders of Russia in a remote coastal village on the Barents Sea. It's a frontier where people build their lives themselves.

The hero of the film is Nikolay, a handyman who lives and works in a house he built on the water with his family. The town's corrupt mayor has set his eyes on the property and uses his authority to seize it. What follows is Nikolay's tragic struggle to reclaim his land and save his crumbling family life. John MacKay is a scholar of Russian cinema at Yale University. And he says the tragedy of "Leviathan" follows in a long tradition of Russian storytelling.

JOHN MACKAY: There's a word in Russian for this that comes from the word for black, meaning darkens. It's the word chernukha from chernyy - and that much Russian film is basically a form of this pessimistic, bleak, squalid sort of representation.

QURESHI: In "Leviathan," that's presented as a struggle between a simple man and an utterly corrupt local government. And John MacKay says that, too, is central to Russian cinema.

MACKAY: There's a long Russian tradition - in fact, it goes back to the Soviet period of attacking governments' corruption, bureaucratic mishandlings of money and all the rest of it. This, in fact, was a great theme of the Stalinist cinema of the 1930s.

QURESHI: What's remarkable, says MacKay, is that films like this are made and released at all.

MACKAY: If you think about the history of authoritarian regimes, one is always surprised by the kinds of things that come through.

QURESHI: Just as surprising is the timing of "Leviathan's" release. It emerges at a time when Russia is perceived as moving backwards to Cold War posturing, threatening its neighbors and suppressing dissent. So "Leviathan" feels like a pointed, timely critique. But filmmaker Andrey Zvyaginstev says that wasn't his intention. For one, he says, he hasn't even been watching the news.

ANDREY ZVYAGINSTEV: (Through interpreter) To tell you honestly, I have been living for about a year - I have been living out of the political context. I don't even own a TV at home anymore and that was my conscious decision.

QURESHI: And why?

ZVYAGINSTEV: (Through interpreter) I'm just afraid to become another victim of the propaganda that is flowing in from the TV screen in enormous amounts.

QURESHI: What he hopes flows from his film is a more universal and timeless critique of government in general, about the ways in which the march of development and greed is destroying traditional life and how the little man is crushed by those in power. When a priest tries to console the grieving central character, he evokes the story of Job and the miseries he endured.


QURESHI: Andrey Zvyaginstev says that story is the inspiration for the film's title.

ZVYAGINSTEV: (Through interpreter) The idea to name the movie "Leviathan" comes from the dialogue between Job - the biblical Job - and God, when God invokes the image of Leviathan as talking about an enormous power.

QURESHI: The title also draws on Thomas Hobbes and his "Leviathan," a classic treatise of political philosophy that argues the need for a strong central authority to control human impulse. Director Andrey Zvyaginstev says today that authority has become the monster.

ZVYAGINSTEV: (Through interpreter) I do believe that humans have created that monster, hence comes the idea of the social contract. But for me, this contract is a contract by the devil, because by entering that contract, you essentially give away your most important possessions, your freedoms.

QURESHI: You would think given Andrey Zvyaginstev's criticism, "Leviathan" would be as controversial in Russia as "The Interview" has been in North Korea. Instead, the film is Russia's official entry to the Oscars. I asked the director if he struggles with making art under the scrutiny of Russia's government.

ZVYAGINSTEV: (Through interpreter) Luckily, my relationship with the state has been working out pretty well. In fact, I got government funding in the amount of 35 percent of the funding of the movie, which is a substantial amount if you think about it. So I'm actually little bit surprised that they have decided to help me out.

QURESHI: Yeah, I mean, especially because the film is asking you to be quite suspicious of people in government when you watch it. I mean, the mayor is not a very likable person.

ZVYAGINSTEV: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know. (Through interpreter) I still don't understand why the government has supported the movie, to be honest with you. This must be a paradox of Russian reality.

QURESHI: And Andrey Zvyaginstev's film brings that paradox of Russian reality starkly to screen. "Leviathan" is scheduled to open in Russia next month. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.