‘Dostoevsky said, ‘Only in fantasy do I see the true reality...Only through the fantastic can you get to the depth of the truth,’” said Andrey Zvyagintsev, a guest of honor at the 30th Haifa International Film Festival, at a press conference on Sunday.
The festival runs until October 18.
He was responding to a question about the allegorical nature of his latest film, Leviathan, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival last spring.
The movie is a bleak but magnificently photographed story of a simple man, Nikolai (Aleksey Serebryakov), in a depressed northern Russian fishing village, who faces a Job-like series of setbacks. First the local government seizes his land, promising to pay him only a small fraction of what it is worth. Then his former junior officer in the Russian army, now a Moscow-based lawyer, betrays him in an even harsher way, one which deeply affects and destroys his family.
While the story may have biblical overtones, it is set firmly in the corrupt, cynical world of Putin’s Russia, where the leader’s malevolent face is glimpsed glowering out of a framed photo in the mayor’s office.
Even the Church offers neither help nor even solace, as a corrupt priest is a crony of the venal mayor.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Leviathan was chosen by the Russian government to be Russia’s official selection for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.
“The Russian government says it is on a mission to fight corruption, and the film is definitely about a man fighting corruption,” said Zvyagintsev.
Asked how he felt at the idea of representing Russia, Zvyagintsev replied, without hesitation: “I am nothing if not Russian. I was born in Russia, I have lived in Russia and I make my films in Russia, I am part of Russian culture.”
But questions of his own identity aside, Zvyagintsev said that the movie has a universal dimension.
“A member of the audience here in Israel said at the screening last night that it tells a story that has also happened here in Israel.
But it’s based on a story that happened in America. It’s a personal story of one man’s life above all, it’s not a political statement about Russia so much as it is a personal statement about the human condition,” said the director, whose 2003 psychological thriller The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.
Zvyagintsev, a soft-spoken man who began his career as an actor, said that the inspiration for the movie was the story of Marvin John Heemeyer. Heemeyer was a Colorado man who was a welder and owned an automotive repair shop, who went on a rampage with a tractor in 2004 after the local authorities gave permission to construct a factory that blocked the entrance to his shop. He bulldozed the town hall, the factory and other buildings, then killed himself.
“It’s on YouTube,” said the director. “I first heard of it in 2008, and I played it for Oleg Negin, my screenwriting collaborator. We decided we had to turn it into a Russian story.”
Originally, they had planned to end it with Nikolai going on a tractor rampage, but they decided that “something bothered us. It was too close to the true story, it was too American. It was a very clear ending, since he made himself heard... It bothered us. We felt that the ability to endure suffering is very Russian. Nikolai’s rebellion is more private.”
“Tolstoy said every nation gets the government it deserves. The government comes from the people, not from the clouds. When a person gets an official position, he changes, he no longer hears the voice of the common man. But it isn’t just about a man and the government, it’s also about a man and his family. When you add his family to the story, Nikolai has something to lose besides his property. We took everything away from him and left him to his cruel fate.”
Asked about whether a key speech about God’s love made by the corrupt priest was meant as satire, Zvyagintsev said, “It’s taken from two speeches made by two priests I found on YouTube at the opening of a new church... If we took it out of context, if we hadn’t seen the priest in the film with the corrupt mayor, we might have seen it as a heartfelt speech, but because of the context we see it as satirical. I am a Christian, that’s my culture and my belief. The one sentence I can tell you to explain this scene is that it is written that you shall be judged, not by your intentions but by your deeds.”
One questioner mentioned the large Russian population in Israel and asked whether the director would make a film here someday.
Zyvagintsev responded, “I’m making cinema, not home movies. I work with ideas and not with a place. Where my film happens is a function of what happens in the story.”