As I’m reading and thinking about Russia at the moment—the contemporary politics and international conduct of which is the current subject in one of my graduate level classes—, I want to mention two films from or about that country that I’ve seen this fall. The objectively superior one is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’, which premiered at Cannes in May. As the French reviews were dithyrambic and Zvyagintsev’s last film, Elena, first rate, I had high expectations for this one. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful film, one of the best of the year. It is, moreover, the most devastating portrait of the political order in contemporary Russia—of the us et coutumes of those who run the Russian state—that one will see on the big screen (though, as it happens, the film was made with the support of the Russian ministry of culture). I’ll let Variety’s Peter Debruge describe it
In “Leviathan,” which director Andrey Zvyagintsev has described as a loose retelling of the Book of Job, an ordinary man must wrestle with his faith not in God but in the Russian state — an epic struggle against a monster with many faces possessed of the capacity to bend the law to suit its own appetites. Resistance is futile, as they say, and yet this stunning satire’s embattled patriarch valiantly perseveres for the sake of his family, even as it crumbles around him. Debuting in competition at Cannes, this engrossing, arthouse-bound opus spans a meaty 142 minutes and unfolds with the heft of a 1,000-page novel.
Lest you think Zvyagintsev’s latest a work of science fiction, the leviathan in question is strictly metaphorical — a concept borrowed from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise of the same name. That may come as a disappointment to those who’ve likened the 50-year-old slow-cinema auteur to a latter-day Andrei Tarkovsky, hoping this might be the abstract metaphysical feature they’d been waiting for. And yet, there’s ample cause for celebration: This is the director’s most accessible and naturalistic film, using everyday characters to test how well modern-day Russia is maintaining the social contract with its citizens.
The setting is a small town on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, a has-been fishing community littered with the carcasses of ships and whales alike, far from Moscow and yet close enough to “civilization” that the locals can practically see Finland from their backyards. Come for the scenery, stay for all that’s rotten beneath the surface in what amounts to an expose touching on the many challenges that face the country today: religion, politics, guns and alcohol.
No doubt, when his ancestors settled the riverside homestead on which Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) and his family — son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and sexy second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) — still live, they never imagined a crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) would one day seize the land to do with as he pleased. But Kolya is no pushover, enlisting his longtime lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) all the way from Moscow to contest the mayor’s claim of eminent domain. (…)
To continue reading Debruge’s review, go here. Reviews by other Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes are equally stellar. The pic is scheduled to open in the US before the end of the year. So if you have any interest in Russia or simply like seeing great movies, don’t miss this one. Trailer is here.
The other film—which I saw three nights ago—is Michel Hazanavicius’s ‘The Search’. Pour mémoire, Hazanavicius directed The Artist—which won five Oscars, including best film and director—plus the two OSS 117 comedies (I saw the first, which was okay; my students tell me I must absolutely see the second, so I will). This one, which is far more sober and serious than the director’s previous pics, is about the Second Chechen War (set in 1999-2000 in Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot on location in Georgia). I was looking forward to it in view of the subject matter and having seen the trailer, and with Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening at the tête d’affiche an added draw. But then I took note of Le Monde’s thumbs down review (placing it in the “to be avoided” category) and read that the film had received a chilly reception at its screening in Cannes (though the boos mainly came from Russian journalists in the audience, so it was said). And the reviews have been mixed—or divided between the very positive and sharply negative—, both in France and by US critics who saw it at Cannes (one consequence of the negative reception at Cannes was Hazanavicius cutting some 20 minutes from the film, thus reducing its commercial running length to 2¼ hours). The film is not flawless, that’s for sure. There are problems with some of the characters—who are, as Variety’s Justin Chang put it, “reduc[ed]…to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces”—and with the Russian soldier protag lifted straight out of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (which was kind of flagrant and that just about every critic mentioned). And the depiction of the Chechen war is manichean. Hazanavicius has it out for the Russians, to put it mildly. They’re the bad guys, period.
This all being said, though, I was thoroughly absorbed in the film and, when it was over, pronounced it to be not bad (and, as it happens, the audience reaction—in later screenings at Cannes and on Allociné—has been more positive than that of the critics). One may acknowledge the film’s shortcomings and heavy-handed didacticism but still find it worthy. Now if I were Russian I would possibly wince at the way the Russian Ground Forces—soldiers being about the only Russians one sees in the film—are depicted, an army commanded by sadistic psychopaths with not an ounce of humanity and whose foot soldiers are hazed into becoming such. As Hazanavicius is French—and may or may not know the Russian language—, one may want to express skepticism at his portrayal. On this, I look forward to the verdict of those who know the Russian army from the inside or can speak about it authoritatively. But until then, I will go with Hazanavicius’s portrait, which conforms to everything I’ve read, understood, and simply know about the Russian army and its Red Army predecessor: about the violence involved in the hazing of soldiers and their behavior toward civilians identified with the enemy side. The fact of the matter is, the Russian army did commit massacres and wantonly bomb and kill civilians in Chechnya—as it did in Afghanistan and every previous war it waged. The opening scene in ‘The Search’ did happen during the Chechen wars and its occurrence was not exceptional. Such has been thoroughly documented and there is no disputing it. Now the Chechen fighters were not exactly enfants de chœur themselves—they committed their share of exactions and war crimes, as insurgents invariably do in such conflicts—but this must not detract from the principal culprit, which was the army prosecuting the counterinsurgency.
Hazanavicius said in an interview that, in his mind, ‘The Search’ is his best film to date. He has clearly been indignant about the Russian campaign in the Chechen wars and used his post-Oscar notoriety to make a film about it, which cost some €22 million. Technically the pic is excellent and with the Georgia locales where it was shot looking authentically Chechen. The film is mainly in Russian and Chechen—with actors and extras recruited among Chechen refugees in Georgia—, with some English and French (by Bejo and Bening, who respectively play the Ingushetia-based EU human rights commission official and war-weary ICRC rep). Hazanavicius’s enterprise here is similar to that of Angelina Jolie’s 2011 ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’—which I posted on last year—, a manichean indictment of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, shot on location in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Serbo-Croatian. I entirely shared Mme Jolie’s views of that conflict and entirely agree with Hazanavicius’s perspective of the one he treats. Others may view it differently. See the film and decide for yourself.
UPDATE: Historian Michael Wood, who writes on film for the London Review of Books, has an essay on ‘Leviathan’ in the LRB’s January 8th 2015 issue.
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