Oscars 2015 Foreign-Language Spotlight: Russia's 'Leviathan'

Cannes Leviathan Film Still - H 2014

Cannes Leviathan Film Still - H 2014

Andrei Zvyagintsev's Cannes competition entry has been called the most important Russian film in decades, but has been criticized at home.

Andrei Zvyagintsev's Leviathan has been called the most important Russian film in decades. A scathing indictment of the corruption and cruelty of the current Russian political regime. A window into the Russian soul.

So, naturally, it was inspired by a muffler repairman in Colorado.

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Russian auteur Zvyagintsev -- who made The Return, which became an international art-house hit after winning 2003's Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival -- says the idea for Leviathan first came to him after hearing the story of tabloid hero Marvin John Heemeyer, a 52-year-old auto shop owner in Granby, Colo., who, in the summer of 2004, turned his tractor into a homemade tank -- "Killdozer," the papers called it -- and reduced half his town to rubble after the local zoning commission decided to build a cement factory on his doorstep and put him out of business.

"For me, Leviathan is a story about a conflict between man and state, which is everlasting and universal," Zvyagintsev tells THR through an interpreter. "It's about corruption of the soul."

The film is Russia's nominee for the foreign-language Oscar. The country has won it once before since the end of the Soviet Union and is seen as having a good chance to see Leviathan win on Sunday.

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A lot of viewers and critics are interpreting the film more politically than metaphysically, and it's easy to see why. In one scene, the movie's hero, Kolya, a mechanic in a small fishing village in the Barents Sea, uses portraits of old Soviet leaders for target practice; in another, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs ominously in the office of the movie's villainous mayor, Vadim, who is scheming to tear down Kolya's shop and take over his waterfront property.

"There's no way it's not a political film," says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing the movie in the U.S. "It takes a stand about the oppression in Russia and these cynical deals that go on. But there's something about the film that's both epic and intimate at the same time. That's one of the reasons I think it's going to work around the world -- the story is very universal. It's a Dostoyevsky novel in a Godfather-type epic."

Ironically, about a third of the budget of the film was put up by Russia's Ministry of Culture, which has not been pleased with how its money has been spent, to say the least. After Leviathan's Golden Globe win for best foreign-language film in January, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said that the movie reflected the high quality of Russian filmmaking, then lambasted the content of the picture itself.

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"Strange, but among the film's characters, there is not a single positive hero," he told an interviewer. "Perhaps one could make something similar in Colorado or in the Arab suburbs of Paris or the depressed areas of southern Italy. But in that case, the director would hardly get so many prestigious Western awards."

Zvyagintsev, who consistently deflects questions about the film's politics, believes people are overthinking the issue. "Everyone will see in Leviathan something different, something that is familiar to them," he says. "But I strongly disagree when Leviathan is called just a social commentary -- be it on corruption or the current state of affairs -- in any given country. It's a story of human tragedy."

Submitting country Russia
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev
Top award Best foreign-language film, Golden Globes

Read up on the film's competitors in the foreign-language race, which are from Estonia, Poland, Argentina and Mauritania.