Saturday, January 24, 2015

Film Review

By Stephen Wilson

'I don't like it,' grunts the indignantly prudish, meddling and menacing Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. Despite the fact that this film has won much praise and an almost uninterrupted string of prizes, such as being short-listed for an Oscar, a prize for best script at Cannes and a London critics Film award, the film has not been applauded by the Russian establishment. On the contrary, the film director and many of the cast have been pillorised. The film has been described as 'obscene', 'immoral' and 'anti-Russian'. There have even been calls to ban the film as well as  fire some actors. Vladimir Medinsky expressed regret at having funded the film! One poor actor, who plays the role of a corrupt priest, Valery Grishko, has been subject to a lot of unpleasant abuse, and threats. 

Extreme nationalists accused him of not loving his homeland and being unpatriotic. They even called for him to be fired from his post as a director in the theatre! Valery Grishko felt deeply offended at those accusations stating 'I'm taking those people
to court for my honour and dignity because I can't forgive those who accuse me of not loving my motherland'. Many of the Orthodox church have begun to join in the baiting. Much of this anger has reached a hysterical level. Much of it is senseless. One recent survey carried out found that although 48% of respondents claimed the film was unpatriotic, they admitted they had not watched the film.

So why has this film aroused so many  deep passions in Russia? What is Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan about? The main theme of the film concerns the profound anguish and agony of a small business man called Kolya who refuses to sell his land to a corrupt mayor of the town. Kolya does not see why he should sell the land which his ancestors have dwelt on for many centuries. It is not just a strip of land, but a sacred birthright that is beyond any price. The cruel indifference of the mayor incenses Kolya who states, 'If he builds a palace here I will burn it down'. So the main plot of the film concerns a life and death struggle between the small man and an all powerful mayor. The mayor is a boorish, bloated and double faced corrupt politician. He has no real respect for anyone who inadvertently treads on his toes or foils his plans. He is too full of himself. He comes up unannounced to Kolya's house to say 'You are all insects. I can crush you'. The local police, the Orthodox church and the courts, all collude and conspire against Kolya. Even his lawyer is almost shot dead. The priests who bless the corrupt mayor are not portrayed in a flattering right but as downright hypocrites who are easily bought and bribed by the powers that be. But the film is by no means anti-religious or anti-Orthodox but in deed, is a highly spiritual film. In once scene, Kolya, who is grieving over his recently deceased wife, comes across a priest called Vasily who comforts him by comparing Kolya to Job in the Bible. Like Job, Kolya is asking many important questions such as 'Why do so many upright people suffer injustice while the corrupt reap fruit? 'The priest tells Kolya that Job loses everything, but God finally restores what he has lost and he lives to 140. 'It is just a fairy-tale' retorts Kolya. 'It is written in the Bible' shrugs the priest. Kolya's lawyer is pestered by local people who keep asking 'Do you believe in God?' The lawyer answers, 'I'm a lawyer who believes only in facts'. The main theme of the film is the formidable monsters which torment a powerless man such as Kolya, such as corrupt officials, policemen, priests and courts who surface everywhere.

I asked one young 17-year-old student, Nadia, what she thought of the film.

'I watched it at a pub which gave a secluded showing of it in Moscow.

'Everyone who watched it there liked it, but not everywhere. I think that while as many as 50% of people think the film depicts Russia as it is, another 50% think it does not. I think that people don't like the film here, especially those in authority because it tells the truth about Russia. A lot of those politicians are very corrupt.'

Those who oppose the film state it depicts Russia as being a totally negative and awful country where everything is bleak. Russia is seen as rotten to the core. The Ministry of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, a historian by profession, thinks the film projects a falsely misleading image of Russia. While the film is being officially shown in just two cinemas in Moscow, Medinsky's own books about Russia are advertised just about everywhere. The historian is the author of three books called 'Myths about Russia'. For instance, the first one, deals with the myths about drunkenness, laziness and cruelty.'

In this book, Medinsky attempts to dispel what he sees as misleading negative stereotypes of Russians with which the west misjudges Russia.

Medinsky claims that not all Russians drink vodka, and questions whether vodka is a Russian drink at all and believes the degree of drunkenness by Russians is wildly exaggerated. This is why he takes exception to the fact that many of the characters in the film drink vodka all the time.

This is a strange form of film criticism. Firstly, the intention of
the film director is not to offer a portrait of Russia or some
partisan ideological statement. This is not a documentary. The film
is simply a story about a small man struggling against all powerful
and corrupt authorities. This is a universal and not just Russian heme. And this is happening all around us. Over half of Russia's main opposition figures are either in jail, abroad or even dead.

Many opposition figures have been jailed on trumped up charges. This can't be swept under the carpet. If you begin to ban films on the basis they portray Russia in a highly unflattering light then you may as well also forbid films based on Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment,' as well as 'The Idiot'  because both these films show Russians in a highly negative light. One critic claims Dostoyevsky shows Russia as 'a lunatic asylum.'  Taken to its
absurd conclusion, Denmark ought to ban Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet ' as one line states 'Denmark is a prison'.

Thankfully , the film has not been banned, and it is set to be broadcasted minus the swear words.

But surely whether a film depicts people in a pleasant or unpleasant way is beside the point. In the fact, this point is irrelevant.

Leviathan is a great film because it is beautifully shot, has a cast which acts very well, delivers a good script, keeps a simple plot and has what so many other films lack. This film has an integrity of soul where the main heroes frankly speak their minds.

Russians ought to welcome a film which wins so many awards at a time when  fewer and fewer quality films are being made here. Most of the films currently being made in Russia have bad plots, cliche ridden scripts and are crude pretentious imitations of western films. At least Leviathan has its own original voice!

We ought to judge it on artistic merit alone!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review and info on government and some popular responses. Awards can be motivated by politics; to think otherwise seems infantile to me. Art comes from the times it's created in, not in some imaginary world of pure aesthetics.

    "We ought to judge it on artistic merit alone!"

    Context counts. "Leviathan" is about Russia now. Films critical of or glorifying existing regimes can not be judged on 'artistic merits alone'. Nor should they be. Didn't the Nazi regime get artistically wonderful films? Should we ignore the cause they glorified and simply dwell on the great technique? I hope not.