The submission of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) as Russia’s Oscar nominee this year was met with surprise. Though partly state-funded, it’s impossible not to read its depiction of modern-day Russia as a biting political critique. The director, who has been acknowledged as one of Russian cinema’s leading talents since his 2003 debut The Return, is on top form with his latest majestic and sombre yet wryly sardonic epic, which won the London Film festival’s top prize and is out in the UK this week. When I met up with him at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in summer where Leviathan was screening, he was a man of measured words, reluctant to comment on President Vladimir Putin’s government (“Mr Zvyagintsev would prefer not to discuss politics,” his translator warned before we began), and cannily aware how to play the film’s multiple associations to cushion their local sting.

Zvyagintsev was quick to point out that Leviathan was inspired not by a Russian incident but by an American news story — that of muffler-shop owner Marvin Heemeyer. Outraged by a zoning dispute in provincial Colorado and with his grievance ignored, he’s fortified a bulldozer with concrete and demolished administrative buildings through the township, before shooting himself. “It’s the story of someone who had a direct clash with power,” the director said, naming Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas as his other inspiration. That story is likewise based on a quest for personal justice, this time by a 16th-century merchant who seeks vengeance against Saxony by going on a house-burning rampage after his horses are stolen and the law fails to come to his aid. “It’s the twin of the Heemeyer story. So I realised this story is universal,” Zvyagintsev said.

Still, Zvyagintsev has set Leviathan squarely on Russian soil and placed the desk of Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor who sets off the tragedy, underneath a framed portrait of Putin. But the small peninsula settlement in northern Russia feels so far away from the Kremlin’s seat of power that the moral vacuum could just as well be one of geographical logistics as much as cynical state leadership. One local — the “louse” as Vadim calls him — who suffers the consequences of his dissolute greed is Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), a car mechanic. His home is on a prime spot of land which the mayor plans to seize to build a luxury dacha on. Hotheaded Kolya is reluctant to relinquish it without a fight, calling in his old friend Dimitri (Vadimir Vdovichenkov), a slick Moscow lawyer, to help.

Like a throwback to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the capital is referred to as a mythical place of grandeur and potential escape. “People say Moscow is made of rubber, it stretches,” Zvyagintsev elaborated. “Many people try to go there as it gives you a chance to survive, it's a very rich city. Unfortunately the country is built in such a way that the centre attracts the peripheries, not the other way around. Moscow is like a separate state and that's a cause of envy in provincial towns. The country’s gigantic — it’s impossible to follow everything and keep it under control.”

In Leviathan, stresses and stakes rapidly escalate, as Dimitri threatens the mayor with incriminating information, meanwhile throwing his own agenda into question as Kolya’s second marriage to Lilya (Elena Lyadova) unravels. Kolya’s resistance is futile in a town in which the only compass for action is whether it serves the purpose of those in power or if you can get away with it — all fuelled by reckless heavy drinking. His friend Pasha insists he’s fine to get behind the wheel totally sloshed — he is after all, a traffic cop. During a cosy dining and drinking session, an Orthodox priest assures the mayor that all power comes from God and he must rule his realm with this might — a tacit license to do anything. In such a bind to brute power, using portraits of former presidents as target practice offers a jaded form of release, as the locals do during a sozzled birthday celebration in one of the film’s more blackly satirical scenes (there is “not yet the historical perspective” for current ones, it’s declared).

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    Stills from Leviathan (2014)

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The flagrant abuses of power by local officialdom and church in Leviathan are a more brazen indictment of Russia’s ruling structures than Zvyagintsev’s previous Elena (2011), which portrayed a modern-day Russia divided by new money and avarice in its noir tale of a Moscow wife’s poisoning plot. When prodded about the specifically Russian context of Leviathan, Zvyagintsev conceded: “There won't be many people in Russia who see the film and deny that it’s true. It would be either audacity or total misunderstanding. While the idea is based on a particular story in America, as soon as it was brought to our territory it acquired certain details that managed to pass on the message about our own circumstances very precisely.” He stressed that Leviathan is not just about Russia but “the destiny of humankind in the world”.

While Kolya is thwarted by bureaucratic legalese and strong-arm tactics, and his personal alliances are marred by betrayal, these human injustices pale in the face of a tragedy that takes his plight to the level of existential parable. The film’s title references not only the political writings on legitimate governance by Hobbes, which warn of the vicious state of nature humanity enters if the social contract breaks down, but also the Book of Job. This questions why the righteous must suffer by telling the story of a prosperous family man who has everything taken away from him by God. In an exchange between Kolya and a priest, while the pair are out buying their respective supplies of vodka and bread, a passage from this Old Testament book is quoted about the fearsome Leviathan, a beast echoed throughout in the form of a hulking whale skeleton on the beach. “When I came across these texts I understood it was an unbelievable coincidence, because it gives a huge, much wider perspective for this story of the spiritual and material power of the state and the church,” said Zvyagintsev.

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    Elena (2011)

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    The Return (2003)

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    The Banished (2007)

Zvyagintsev has always tended toward weighty and metaphysical, grand-scale work awash with biblical symbolism. After the eerily mythical The Return (2003), about the reappearance of an absent father, came The Banishment (2007), another atmospheric, ominous depiction of family breakdown at the hands of a brusque and remote patriarch, which played out in an impressive widescreen panorama of blue-greys and Annunciation motifs. “There are more stories in the Bible than in One Thousand and One Nights,” the director said. “The entire knowledge of humankind about itself is collected in this book.”

How has Leviathan left Zvyagintsev positioned in Russia’s increasingly repressive cinematic climate? “To a large extent it doesn't depend on me, it’s also up to my producer Alexander Rodnyanskiy to make decisions about what we will do next,” he said of future projects. “On his desk for a number of years have been several scripts — high-budget costume films that require a lot of finance.” Two are set in the Second World War on Soviet territory. The first is about the massacre at Babi Yar under the German occupation and the second about the 900-day siege of Leningrad. The third, he said, is set in ancient Greece. While they sound like historical, patriotic projects unlikely to rile state feathers, from Zvyagintsev’s tone we can expect an arthouse sensibility in their execution: “They are not about battles, explosions and tanks.” Just how much room he’ll have to move in realising his next vision remains to be seen.

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