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Officials and Locals Clash Over Bleak Russian Representation in Oscar-Nominated ‘Leviathan’

Officials and Locals Clash Over Bleak Russian Representation in Oscar-Nominated 'Leviathan'


READ MORE: Cannes Review: ‘Leviathan’ Is a Transfixing Epic That Grows On You

Russians haven’t been very appreciative of their onscreen portrayals of late. They’re typically shown to be drunk, depressed and on the verge of suicide. And although hyperbolic, that assumption is not all that far from the truth.

With a country whose landmass is over 60 percent permafrost, you too would find it difficult to climb out of your rickety bed, frequently tossing back swills of vodka. Although acclaimed (but mostly vilified in his home country of Russia) director Andrey Zvyagintsev claims his Cannes-winning film was inspired by the tragic story of Marvin Heemeyer, many believe there is another message that can be ascertained.

Heemeyer made news in 2004 when the Granby, Colorado businessman had tirelessly fought a zoning dispute which would have put him out of business. After unsuccessfully trying to quash the disagreement, the local storeowner hijacked a bulldozer and proceeded to destroy 13 buildings – including the town hall and the former mayor’s house – in his native town before committing suicide with a handgun in the driver’s seat. It’s all but a coincidence that “Leviathian’s” story is starkly similar. The film finds Kolya, a local car mechanic of the bleak town of Teriberka, falling deeper and deeper into despair as he is continuously harassed by the Russian Orthodox Church and must overcome the emotional ordeal of his wife’s suicide. Along with his lack of consistent employment, and the incessantly harsh winds and chills of the Arctic Ocean-bordering village, Kolya is fighting for his sanity before being ultimately crushed by the mayor.

Although both explore the efforts of “the little man” being swept aside and ultimately crushed in a fixed society, most Russian officials believe that Zvyagintsev’s harrowing film is nothing more than an attack on Russia’s psychological fortitude, its politics, and ultimately, its people. The most vocal opponents of “Leviathian” seem to stem from the actual political machine itself: Putin. The hegemonic idiosyncrasies of Putin’s government trickles its way down to the mayor’s office, where Mayor Trubilina loudly campaigns that to have the award-winning film banned for its depressing (and in her eyes, subversive) depiction of her town, Teriberka.

But there are other, more supportive voices to be heard in Russia, ones that take comfort in the film’s portrayal of Russia’s “glubinka” or back country, areas that are most obviously, if ostensibly, portray Russia’s national identity – a quality that most urbanites of America could understand as well. Local scientists and drunks also find the film honest and caring in its sincere representation of life in Teriberka. “It is good to look at yourself from the side occasionally,” said one self-professed town drunk told the New York Times as part of recent coverage of the film’s reaction.

But regardless of how Teriberka is received by the politics of Moscow, the locals of the small seaside town embrace the film’s gloomy depiction of Terberka, coming to realize that there are other places just like it all over the world, and that their “little paradise,” as Trubilina calls it, is just like countless other small, forgotten towns: Ones with people who care and still fight to have meaning and worth in their life. 

READ MORE: Cannes Review: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Searing, Powerful Russian Epic ‘Leviathan’

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