The bleak Russian satire Leviathan, the latest film from Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena), has been generating a firestorm of praise and controversy ever since the film had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Described as a “Book of Job” tale set against the backdrop of contemporary Russian corruption, few pundits expected to see the film listed in contention as a Best Foreign Language selection for this year’s Oscars. Yet the Russian Oscar Committee has done just that, brewing up a storm of controversy in the process.
Zvyaginstev directed and co-wrote (with Elena scribe Oleg Negin) the bracingly topical feature which features a pointed commentary on Russia in the era of Vladamir Putin. One scene in particular that has generated the most heat finds pictures of former Soviet and Russian leaders set up as target practice at an alcohol-soaked shooting party. The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey said of the film: “It’s a bleak but compassionate, glancingly comic and often satirically incendiary work about the pyramid structure of Russian corruption, with the little guy crushed helplessly beneath, and God, or at least the orthodox Church, perched at the top.” The take-no-prisoners, ghastly serious subject matter absorbed into the grander satire of modern politics in the country helped the film find favor with critics at Cannes, where it won the Best Screenplay prize and convinced Sony Pictures Classics to acquire the title for U.S. distribution. Clearly it says something about the quality of the film that the home country it is lambasting chose it to represent them in the Oscar race.
Ilya Burets and Dmitry Nelidov, producers of the acclaimed Russian comedy Gorko!, are calling foul play on the Russian Oscar Committee, claiming Leviathan should be pulled because the film hasn’t received a proper release in Russian theaters. Academy rules dictate that in order for a foreign-language film to be eligible it must play in its native country for at least one week between October 1st of the previous year and September 30th of the year being represented. The Gorko! producers are going after Leviathan on a technicality, stating the film never received a proper commercial release in Russia, but rather just a seven-day run in a single Russian theater. (It’s something a surprise that Leviathan, which is reportedly getting a full Russian release sometime in 2015, will even get that considering the new obscenity laws that were put into effect and the fact that Leviathan features strong language and sexual content).
Leviathan looks to go up against other foreign stalwarts like Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (Canada), the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (Belgium) and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland) as contenders for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year. Russia hasn’t taken home the award since Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun twenty years ago. Sony Classics will be releasing the title in the U.S. on December 31st, so that the film is eligible for other Oscars as well.