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Decaying Institutions: Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev on His Vision of Russia in ‘Leviathan’

Interview: Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev on 'Leviathan'

The carcasses of things that once were powerful are always present in the northern Russian town at the center of acclaimed filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Cannes-winning filmLeviathan.” Imposing beasts, both natural and manmade, rest lifeless in the vast terrain that
serves as backdrop for the sharply written human drama. These ferocious monsters also represent the decaying institutions that rule the fate of mankind on
earth: religions and governments. When faced with these enormous forces, an ordinary man, Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov), is left adrift and powerless broken by injustice. Betrayed,
robbed, and accused, Nikolay becomes a prime example of a virtuous and just man suffering at the hands of immeasurable evil.

Zvyagintsev’s latest achievement functions both as a subtly poignant political statement and a riveting exploration on morality without ever calling
upon heavy-handed narrative elements or pretentious dialogue. His screenplay is delicately constructed of effective visual references, sophisticated
metaphors, and nuanced characters. On the surface the interpersonal relationships work on an emotional level, but the biblical undertones and the culturally specific touches elevate the compelling plot to heights of masterful storytelling. Not only does he make acute observations on contemporary Russia through his vision, but he does it in a truly cinematic manner making use of the landscape, his actors, and the beautiful shades of blue that permeate his frames. 

We recently had the chance to speak briefly with director Andrey Zvyagintsev in Los Angeles. “Leviathan” has also recently been shortlisted among 9 films still in the running for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

Aguilar:  In “Leviathan” the intimate story of a
man dealing with corruption and betrayal becomes a reflection of bigger social
issues in Russia. What was the inciting idea that compelled you to create this complex

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
The basic intention was to expand the idea of confrontation between the individual and the system, like it happened with Marvin John Heemeyer, whose case
inspired me at the beginning. That story happened in Colorado in 2004. Marvin John Heemeyer was a 52-year-old welder whose property was expropriated.

He was a lonely person. He had no one around him, no family. His work was all he had. He constructed a bulletproof bulldozer and drove it into town. He
demolished several municipal buildings before shooting himself. This story amazed me and I decided to make this movie. I wanted to expand on this story
based on this case in the U.S.

I wanted to adapt it to the social context in Russia. I wanted to transform this simple story of confrontation between individual and system to a big scale
or large scope story, about a person who is losing everything consecutively: family, property, and friends. Added to this he is also facing betrayal from those he loves.
Everything he is going through is very much in line with what happens in the Book of Job in the bible.

Aguilar: There are carcasses that appear throughout the film in various forms: the wrecked boats, the skeletons, the ruins of a church. What’s the you symbolism behind these lifeless remains?

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
I wouldn’t call these a symbol. I found them to be very attractive visual images, which are very much related to the story. We have the symmetry of the shipwrecked
boats at the beginning and at the end of the movie. At the same we have the whales’ skeletons, which look very similar. They are all structures,
but they are also the bones of something that was once alive. The symmetry of the boats is kind of a visualization of the dying landscape, of something
that was alive before. The represent something that is dying right now.

Aguilar: You have a
way to find great drama in what might appear to be common situations. Are these
family relationships something that your are particularly drawn to?

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
I wouldn’t say I’m fixated on describing any kind of relationship whether it is a father and a son, or a family. I don’t like it when people say that I’m
particularly following the same line or that I’m only interested in family dramas. I’m interested in human relationships. The most intimate, the most
delicate, and the most intriguing relationships are those within a family.

Aguilar: One of the scenes that I found incredibly clever and resonant is when the group of men are using portraits of Russian leaders as shooting targets. What was your specific intention?

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
I wanted it to reflect the irony felt by ordinary people towards the power in Russia. Most Russians don’t treat the government, or those in power, as something close
to them. They don’t believe that they, as ordinary people, are able to change the development of things. That’s why they have a very specific ironic
sentiment towards power and the figures that represent it. I wanted to translate this irony into the cinematic language.

Aguilar: Religion plays a unique role in the film. Is the separation between church and state, or the lack thereof, something that troubles you?

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
Church, the spiritual power, and the executive power are working today united in a system that confronts people. This alliance or cooperation between the
spiritual power and the executive power, between the church and the government, unfortunately takes away the Church’s basic mission. It takes away their
right to speak on moral or ethical subjects.

Aguilar: Given the themes presented in your film and how Russian institutions are portrayed, did you have any concerns in terms of how the government would react?

Andrey Zvyagintsev:
In order to make this film I had to ignore some of the concerns I had.
The president of Russia said a few years ago that the fight against
corruption is a
major task for our society. I think that my film was very much in
line with what Russian officials have said in multiple occasions about
the subject.

Aguilar: What would you say is your main source of inspiration when working on a new project?

Andrey Zvyagintsev
: Observing life, living through it. As you experience life some events call upon you to suffer through them and that’s what brings inspiration.

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