Will Russia submit Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Leviathan as that country’s Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar contender? Doubtful. I think it’s crazy for Russia to bury a film as good as Leviathan but Vladimir Putin and his governmental goons have their own views. I recognize that “doubtful” has been the general speculation since the film’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival two months ago, given the anti-Putin, anti-corruption current in the film. The repressive gangster attitude of the Putin government has spoken for itself time and again (and particularly today), and — I hate to admit this — the likelihood of official Russian support of Leviathan is probably nil. So Sony Classics can probably forget about an Oscar bounce when it opens the film down the road (i.e., probably early next year).
Make no mistake — Leviathan deserves such a bounce. Last May I called it “a drop-dead brilliant, awesomely-composed-in-every-respect melodrama and moral tale that concurrently serves as a microcosm of (or metaphor for) a morally compromised, ruthlessly malevolent, bare-knuckled Russia. Vladimir Putin will love it! (Kidding.) Political corruption, lust and infidelity, way too much vodka, blackmail and thuggery, gunshots, bromide-dispensing priests who kowtow to powerful scumbags, huge whale skeletons, crashing waves, rotting ships — this puppy has it all plus the aura of a majesterial art film plus opening and closing musical passages by Phillip Glass plus the most beautifully lighted, handsomely composed widescreen photography (by Mikhail Krichman) I’ve seen in a long time.”
True, a 5.23 AP story by Jake Coyle reported that Zvyagintsev has “disputed” that his film condemns present-day Russia, saying that the story “could have taken place anywhere in the world.” And yet producer Alexandre Rodnianski admitted in Cannes that Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, “didn’t like the film after recently seeing it.”
In a recent sum-up piece about the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson said that it’s “hard to believe” that Russia would submit Leviathan for Oscar consideration as “it is a harsh indictment of the rampant corruption that infects everyday life there…wall pictures of Vladimir Putin watch over everyone.”
Will today’s shoot-down of a Malaysian 777 airliner while flying over the separatist-controlled region of eastern Ukraine, reportedly caused by a Russian-supplied, radar-controlled missile and most likely fired by some hot-dog separatist who didn’t know what he was shooting at, change anything? Probably not but it’s possible it just might. Maybe.
The blowback from today’s tragedy is going to be felt on several diplomatic levels for a very long time. Putin is obviously looking like a hugely malevolent asshole right now. The basic fact is that 280 innocent civilian passengers and 15 crew members are dead because of Russia’s covert intervention and inciting of violence in the Ukraine. If Putin is smart and wants to get ahead of this…well, the fate of a movie is small potatoes next to the general scope of this tragedy. But if Putin is smart he’ll think down the road about easing up on his bad-guy, militant bully-boy image. Instead of doubling down on thuggery, he might want to issue an image of liberal tolerance. The phony kind, of course, but what is any public-relations image but smoke and mirrors?
If Putin wants to put out the message that he’s a little more cool and comme ci comme ca than people think, one thing he could do would be to tell his minions to submit Leviathan as Russia’s Best Foreign Language Oscar contender. This would convey confidence and a semi-liberal willingness to allow for differing points of view. If Putin wants to fortify his image in the U.S. as a repressive, control-freak government gangster…well, he doesn’t need any help in that department, does he? But one way to underline this would be to play the thug card and not submit Leviathan. A film that portrays Russia as a land of corruption in which brute force runs the show, and which further suggests that I’m the Godfather of this disease? I will bury it!
I tried reaching out to several Russian journalists and academics and film-industry types today for thoughts about this situation…zip, zip, zip, zip, zip. I tried contacting Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-presidents of Sony Classics who acquired Leviathan at Cannes and will probably release it domestically in early 2015. Nothing from them either.
If I was Barker and Bernard’s p.r. rep, I would issue something along these lines: “Leviathan is a powerful, profoundly satisfying melodrama about present-day Russian life and culture as well as the unfortunate abuse of power and general corruption that you’ll find in almost any large governmental bureaucracy. Russia will decide which film it wants to submit, but we are naturally hoping they’ll acknowledge and accept the acclaim that Leviathan generated in Cannes and follow suit as far as submitting it as Russia’s contender for the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar. But it’s their call and not ours.”