Conquering the Leviathan: An Interview with Andrey Zvyaginstev

Fresh off his Golden Globe win for Best Foreign Film, director Andrey Zvyaginstev clears up a lot confusion about the political and sometimes religious undertones of his sweeping, grand new film Leviathan.

In Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Leviathan, a fisherman (Alexey Serebryakov) has to fight back a corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) trying to seize his land. At first glance, it’s an adaptation of the Book of Job, as the fisherman faces tragedy after tragedy while questioning where is god when he most needs him. Yet a deeper reading reveals a film that’s as vast in terms of ideas, as anything written by the great Russian masters, while the film has been reduced by most American critics to be an obvious critique of Russia under Vladimir Putin, Zvyaginstev is too smart and perceptive a filmmaker to be so narrow in his objectives.

While Leviathan can indeed work as a satire about the current political climate in Russia, its central themes are universal in more ways than one would wish to acknowledge.

Zvyaginstev has become a master at depicting cosmic indifference in films like The Return and Elena which have no regards for happy endings, but he has delivered his masterpiece in Leviathan, which has an intellectual scope rarely seen in modern cinema. The film has collected awards all over the world, including a Best Screenplay nod at the Cannes Film Festival, the top prize at the London Film Festival, and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. We spoke to Zvyaginstev on the eve of the film’s New York opening to discuss the way his works are connected, his unique use of Philip Glass’ music, and how his work is interpreted outside of Russia.

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Every article written about your films, since the release of Elena has focused mostly on Russian politics instead of the films’ merits, do you feel that the media attention on this has been too much?

When it comes to Elena, as far as I’m concerned, too much emphasis was put on the social injustices, on the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor and the large gap that exists between the two. They were too obsessed with this which wasn’t the main idea in the film. As far as Leviathan, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to emphasize social issues, in the social context, since at the center of the film there is a common person fighting the establishment. So the issue of injustice could not be overestimated, it’s there, so it’s natural that people talk about it, but nonetheless the ideas in this movie go beyond issues of social dramas.

I felt it was a case of “damn if you do, damn if you don’t”, because many people felt you were making a point by having the President’s portrait in scenes set inside government offices, because really you had to have it there because that’s how things are, and yet if you hadn’t put his portrait there people would be saying you were making a point by not having him there.

Absolutely! You are the first person who says something that is very true and correct; everybody knows that in a government office there must be a picture of the President, it’s how it’s done in most countries, even in America. So if one of the scenes happened in an office, it was there, so there was no point in moving it.

As a Russian filmmaker, once you take your films outside your country, which is a place associated with injustice and is in constant opposition to the Western world, do you feel like your films are absorbed through that lens? Is it frustrating that this is the filter chosen to view your films?

What’s wrong about showing the truth? Nothing is wrong about showing the truth. If there is injustice and corruption, why wouldn’t you show it? I have also noticed that a certain part of the Russian community who live in America or Canada, would rather have me not showing things like that. I believe if something is there, I might as well speak about it.

I felt that if Dostoyevsky had made a film, this is what it would look like, because the ideas it encompasses could very well be worthy of an epic novel, which made me wonder what were some of your literary influences, and also made me curious about what the screenplay looked like.

[laughs] I love the works of writers such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov … I feel like they influence every Russian who is a creative person, it’s inevitable, it’s a very important part of our culture. A person who decides to dedicate his or her life to arts can not escape their influence, and certainly there are connotations of Dostoyevsky’s ideas in Elena in particular. I hope that we were able to go into the depths of human nature and to show it or reproduce our discoveries. It’s not like we do it with an official strategy, or that we try to write things with Dostoevsky in mind, he’s just part of our nature, so with my co-writer Oleg Negin, since we speak the same language and we have been working together for a long time, this is our flesh and blood. It’s in the air, in our minds, souls. For me Dostoevsky is the first and the last.

The film begins with these gorgeous aerial shots of the sea and the cliffs, then we go into the plot, and you end it with views of the cliffs and sea again. I chose to interpret those bookends as a visit from god, who comes to earth, sees how terrible everything is — including the people who are supposed to be representing him are corrupt — how inverted our values are, so he leaves in the end.

Yeah! Wow! [laughs] You’re a great interlocutor, I don’t even need to answer this question, because you’ve beautifully said everything I feel and think. In the last third of the movie when Nikolay [the fisherman] has a conversation with the priest and asks him over and over “Where is your god?” and they talk about Job and how god came to him and appreciated his righteousness. Then we have the finale with the views and tides, and the metal container beating against the shore, and we’re waiting for something to happen, for god to appear, and then we have the credits. [laughs] There’s no grandfather with a beard coming down from the sky to save them.

I felt this tied in perfectly with a recurring theme in your films which have been about children who think their parents don’t want them.

I think it’s a coincidence. For example in Elena it’s the other way around, for she does everything she can to support her child. Somehow I never thought about it …

To me all your films have been about children who either believe that their parents don’t want them, or children who ask too much from their parents.

I never really thought about it, at least not something I came up with in advance. Each story has its own collision.

In Leviathan there are many moments where you show us trinities, like the saints in the priest’s office, which makes sense, but there’s also the three stickers with naked women we see in the car.

The trinity is a classic form, triptychs are a classic structure of art, it’s very common in Russia to have three icons in your car as a mean of protection, because they think if they have a few icons they will protect them from collisions or whatever. So they’ll have three icons and three whores [laughs], they emphasize the pagan qualities because these things don’t go together, so this are the superficial relations that exist with faith. In the archbishop’s office, like you said, the items should be there, but one of the items is the head of Christ. When I saw it I was shocked, because I wondered why would anyone behead him, was it necessary to make a sculpture of the head? It even had “ecce homo” written in it.

I’m fascinated by the use of Philip Glass in your Leviathan, because even though he is a minimalist composer, most filmmakers who use his music end up overusing them to the point where it doesn’t feel minimalist at all. But you use it sparingly in key moments.

After he composed the score for Elena we talked to his agent about working with Philip in the future, so when we were doing Leviathan we got in touch with him but he was busy and we didn’t have time to wait, so we had to use some of his pieces that had already been created, I listened to all of his work and chose these specific pieces. What we used in the finale were fragments of the opera he did, I believe, in 1992, and for the beginning we used a fragment of the epilogue. I tried to use some fragments throughout the movie but it didn’t work, so I decided to use the music as bookends instead. It makes the visuals of the beginning and the end even more significant.

Leviathan was selected as Russia’s official entry for the Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards, what are your thoughts on that?

Before I answer that I just wanted to say that if Philip Glass reads this, I want him to know how grateful I am for his work, because he truly elevated my film with his music. As to my feelings about the Oscar, I can only speak about the precursors, because we’ve been to London, Toronto, Munich … and every time, people have liked it and that in itself is very rewarding. Naturally when you make a movie the last thing you think about is a festival or an award, you just hope to make something that will touch the strings of your soul and the souls of others.

Splash Image: still from Leviathan.