Leviathan Paints A Russia Frozen In Time

Leviathan movie posterLeviathan, a new movie out in American theaters now, and soon to be shown in Russian theaters after being scrubbed of bad language (more on this later).  First lets examine the film and what people need to know. It has already racked up quite a few nominations and a few wins.  It has won the best screenplay in Cannes, and a Golden Globe for best foreign film, and is a sure bet for an Oscar in the same category.

In short, Leviathan is about a family living in a small northern town, where the beaching of a whale long ago has left a constant reminder of the desolation this city endures.  The term Leviathan comes from a mythical water creature similar to Moby Dick in the book of Job.  At first, you are almost reminded of the many small towns and villages that pepper the territories of the old Soviet Union.  It becomes apparently clear that it is not.  Many of the old USSR states today have progressed into thriving little democracies with a liberal justice system, like Estonia, Lithuania, etc.

As the story in Leviathan progresses you are always reminded of the system that has not abolished the old ways.  Russia today is at the forefront of holding on to its glory from the old days, they are petrified of the results that social change brings (see Ukraine).  Places like Moscow, where the “big shot lawyer” and brother of the main character is from has been unable to resist some modernization, and thus don’t relate to a small regional government like the one portrayed in the movie.  People in Russia today only can see this on a federal scale, where its apparent that if you piss off the wrong person, you will go to jail (see: Pussy Riot, Alexei Navalny, and too many others).

In the end the movie shows a country that hasn’t changed a bit in 25 years (since I left it).  The characters in Leviathan suffer difficult family matters pressured by the lack of anything to do but drink vodka in unhealthy amounts.  Then again this is Russia, where Vodka is considered a national commodity.  It is clear in the movie that the is no separation between state and church in any recognizable way.

Russia initially funded the project, but then they watched it and realized that Leviathan does not quite portray Russia as Vladmir Putin would prefer it, so they cut funding.  As the Russian state culture bureau put it “we will choose which flowers to water” depending on how they make the state look.  In this case the truth has begun to seem worst on camera then it does on the pages of RT (Russia Today), which has become nothing more the a Kremlin tool for disseminating propaganda.

The take away for me and people like me, who have immigrated from the old Soviet Union, is that nothing has changed in the last 25 years and in a decade of 100+ dollar/ barrel oil prices (72% of russian revenue), none of that money has reached these small cities that comprise the majority of Russia.  If these cities saw no improvement then, one can only imagine the hell they will suffer under the current volatility the country has brought on its self.

It is notable that after the funding by Russians was cut, the directors and movie producers released the uncensored version of Leviathan on popular pirating websites and asked for small donations instead.  This is a similar tactic used by Sony to distribute ‘The Interview”, which had its own pitfalls.