Moscow – Leviathan is Russia’s biggest cinematic chance at an Oscar in two decades – and a stinging thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
The brooding drama by Andrey Zvyagintsev awakened a condemning choir of government loyalists who accuse the film’s creators of insulting the country’s political and spiritual leaders and portraying average Russians as grotesque, vodka-swilling losers.
And what’s even more vexing to these critics is that Leviathan was paid for by Russian taxpayers as part of the Kremlin’s effort to fund and promote domestic film production – a move that made Russia one of Europe’s largest film producers.
Set in an Arctic town devastated by corruption and alcoholism, Leviathan tells the story of a foul-mouthed antagonist mayor who keeps President Vladimir Putin’s portrait in his office and whose wrongdoings are backed by obedient police officers, unjust judges, and an Orthodox priest.
To expropriate the heavy-drinking protagonist’s seaside house – from which one can see the beached bones of a gigantic whale – the mayor frames him for the murder of his adulterous wife, who committed suicide. The house is then bulldozed, and an Orthodox church is erected in its place.
The film has already won a string of major international prizes and has been shortlisted for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category. It has also turned into the most debated Russian flick in years.
While many critics and filmgoers hail the film’s artistic qualities and cold realism, Kremlin officials, artists, and clerics with the Russian Orthodox Church take turns to lambast its negative depiction of modern Russia.
And the hysterical, unforgiving tone of government-controlled media that cover the Leviathan debate resembles Soviet-era campaigns against dissident art.
Director Zvyagintsev said he grew “tired” of commenting on the accusations. “I’m done discussing it,” he told Al Jazeera.
A member of the Kremlin’s Public Chamber and former lawmaker said the film should be banned in Russia, and claimed it was part of the West’s “big plan” to discredit and eventually destroy his country as a sovereign state.
“It will be used by foreign governments for a cultural dehumanisation of Russians,” Sergei Markov told Al Jazeera. “The Russia seen in it is so bad, that it won’t be a bad idea to eliminate Russia at all.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, the ultra-conservative, pro-Kremlin institution that claims more than 100 million Russians in its flock, also said Leviathan reiterates the most negative western clichés about the country and its people.
Russia’s culture minister publicly regretted the decision of his ministry to fund Leviathan.
“Let’s admit that in its pursuit of international success the film is unashamedly opportunistic,” Vladimir Medinsky told the Izvestia daily. “Films that are not just aimed at criticising the current government but openly spit on it … must not be financed by taxpayers.”
Films that are not just aimed at criticising the current government but openly spit on it … must not be financed by taxpayers.
From a scholar’s viewpoint, the ado about Leviathan mirrors the changes in Russia’s post-Soviet collective psyche.
“The uproar of patriotic, liberal, pro-western, pro-Russian, populist, manipulative responses signifies that the Russian mentality has been completely remapped,” anthropologist Denis Valkov told Al Jazeera.
“In that sense, Leviathan is the most adequate image of the Russian collective subconscious.”
Kremlin’s cinematic agenda
The Kremlin is the biggest sponsor of domestic film production – similar to France and Canada – but what it often wants in return is patriotism and the promotion of its viewpoint, often at the expense of historic truth or commercial success.
These days, Putin’s government can spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on the films that bomb at the box office but vilify Russia’s enemies and glorify its triumphs and controversial historic figures – or security services that once employed him and many of his top officials.
In 2006, FSB, the main KGB-successor agency, introduced an award for best works of art that “form a positive image of FSB officers”.
Among the first winners was the actor who played an FSB officer in Personal Number, an action movie about a fictional tycoon who organises explosions and attacks in Russia.
The tycoon was modelled on Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire who fled Russia after a falling out with Putin. Ironically, Personal Number was cofunded by ORT, Berezovsky’s own television channel that was overtaken by the Kremlin. The film cost $7m, flopped at the box office, and made critics cringe. Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom in 2013.
Other government agencies, including tax and traffic police, also polished their image by commissioning and sponsoring films or television series – with mixed results.
In 2005, the defence ministry launched its own national television channel that offers patriotic shows and films. To lure young Russians to military service, the ministry cofunded The Cadets Childhood, a coming-of-age television series about teenagers at a prestigious military school. The first season was aired in 2006 amid a nationwide outcry over a conscript who was beaten so severely by other soldiers that his legs and genitals had to be amputated.
Critics said watching the 365 episodes of another defence ministry-commissioned project, Soldiers, was as onerous as serving in Russia’s military.
Flops and hits
But the main agency that distributes government money for film production is the culture ministry’s Cinema Fund whose officials underwrite full or partial state funding for dozens of films every year. They range from art-house flicks and cartoons inspired by Russian fairy tales, to comedies and television series based on classic Russian literature or biographies of historical figures.
Some of these films portrayed Russia even more negatively than Leviathan. But in December, Culture Minister Medinsky pledged to stop supporting the films that depict what he reportedly called “crappy little Russia”.
Attracted by hefty subsidies, tax breaks and publicity on government-controlled television networks, many film-makers hopped on the bandwagon, because only a fraction of Russian films are profitable because of competition with Hollywood.
In 2013, only 8 out of 90 feature films in Russia returned the investment, according to Movieresearch.ru, an industry publication. No data for 2014 have been available so far.
As a result, a growing portion of box-office hits are government-funded adventure movies with a strong nationalist agenda. Simplified and laced with comic gags and special effects to target a younger audience, they interpret key moments in Russian history with a strong anti-western sentiment.
However, most of these films lack a lasting impact. “These films don’t live longer than one season,” Vyacheslav Shmyrov, editor of the Kinoprotsess magazine, told Al Jazeera.
The most outspoken of pro-government film-makers is veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov, who directed half a dozen critically acclaimed masterpieces, including Burnt by the Sun, a Stalinist-era drama that won the best foreign language film Oscar in 1994.
Burnt By the Sun 2 cost taxpayers $55m becoming Russia’s most expensive – and most widely publicised – post-Soviet film. It flopped disastrously despite Putin’s endorsement and reports about schoolchildren and government employees being forced to see the movie in 2011.
By commissioning films with a patriotic or nationalist agenda, the Kremlin is just following slightly forgotten traditions.
The messianic and utopian Communist ideology was impossible without visual propaganda, and Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin said once that “cinema is the most important of all arts”.
Two dozen film studios in each Soviet republic churned out hundreds of films, documentaries and cartoons that had to be pre-approved and censored. Even completed films often ended up shelved for decades, their creators reprimanded or banned from the industry.
Stunning, visionary and groundbreaking works by Sergei Eisenstein, Andrey Tarkovsky, Sergei Paradjanov and many others were heavily edited and often criticised by communist officials despite – or perhaps because of, their international success.
But the Soviets could afford productions that were impossible even in Hollywood.
War and Peace, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, was a seven-hour-long epic that took six years to film. It involved 150 railroad carts filled with equipment and 15,000 extras played by Red Army soldiers clad in the exact copies of uniforms worn in Napoleonic and tsarist armies.
Soviet television was an even more effective propaganda tool. Putin wrote in his 2000 autobiography that he decided to join the KBG after he saw Shield and Sword, a 1968 television miniseries named after the dreaded agency’s emblem.
In the aftermath of the Leviathan debate, the culture ministry said distribution of any film, Russian or foreign, could be banned for “discrediting national culture [and] posing a threat to national unity and national security”.
It also plans to urge the distributors of foreign films to postpone releases in Russia if it coincides with the openings of state-sponsored Russian films.
“It is important that the films have a chance to gross at the box office,” minister Medinsky reportedly said at a meeting with film distributors. “If you can’t agree between yourselves in a good way, we will have to protect the interests of Russian cinema.”