CANNES - Andrey Zvyagintsev is a brave man. He may not see it that way, but it was painfully obvious to everyone attending the Cannes Film Festival press conference today for his new film "Leviathan."
Set in a small town in northern Russia, "Leviathan" centers on Kolia (Alexi Serebriakov), a man trying to stop the head of the local government (Roman Madianov) from annexing his family home. At the beginning of the film, Kolia's longtime friend and lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) arrives from Moscow to help his case. Unfortunately, as the story unfolds Kolia's fortunes turn into a cascade of tragedies that no one can stop. Zvyagintsev was originally inspired by the story of an American worker rebelling against oppression, but by moving the story to his homeland he has purposely turned it into a statement about Russia's current political climate and the disturbing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. It's a powerful message that combined with Russia's current crackdown of civil liberties and aggression in the Ukraine has made it a favorite to win the Palme d'Or Saturday night. What's shocking is that the film was partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture. The head of that government agency just saw the film a few days ago. And, not surprisingly, wasn't happy about it.
Zvyagintsev, unfortunately translated from Russian to French and then English remarked, "He said the film was very talented, but he didn't like it. I can understand that stance. He has a lot of other work to do. He's supposed to make the world better. In fact, one can understand the minister of culture he has to go around his political work. What we are doing is to create a work of art, so we have other concerns."
"Leviathan" finished shooting last summer and civil liberties have become even more precious in the months since. Zvyagintsev and his producers insist their goal was not to directly confront the government. Especially since 35% of its budget was funded by the Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Fund. As a world renowned filmmaker, however, Zvyagintsev knows his words and carry weight in and outside the filmmaking community.
"In terms of liberty and freedom I think that in all countries of the world all around the earth the problem of liberty is important," Zvyagintsev says. "It's a duty of everyone to combat the state and uphold liberty. Either you don't talk about the issue at all or address it in a very frank and forthright manner."
The meeting with the head of the Ministry of Culture became a major talking point during the conference. Zvyagintsev provided more details of their discussion noting, "He was basically open. He could understand a number of things. He has a firm stance which cannot be respected because he has a specific goal to reach. I would like to repeat what I said earlier on. Art must provide light. It should be a form of enlightenment and should give people hope that there are people who see things in a different way. I'm very please indeed that my film received financial support from the state.I have great hope. I do indeed hope that we will reach mutual understanding and freedom."
Zvyagintsev adds, "I wouldn't want to venture to give people advice. I do however firmly intend to live in my country and continue making films."
That generated a rare round of applause from the press corps. "Leviathan's" producer Alexandre Rodnianski said the film is an example of a great artist with a strong idea and a beautiful script earning initial support from the government. That being said, he expects audience reaction to be "challenging."
Rodnianski notes, "The reaction will definitely be mixed at the same time we believe this movie will have the ability to make them laugh and cry."
Vdovichenkov made sure the actors on the panel were heard saying, "I think a person who devotes his life to art also has works to do wherever it may be. I don't believe that borders are important. I hope that films like this one will make the world a bit better in our country as well.
Still, the questions kept coming for Zvyagintsev who was asked what sort of fallout he expects from the Cannes reaction and when (and if) it's released in Russia.
"Thinking about the future, being afraid, worrying about future problems I think you have to take things as they come," Zvyagintsev says. "The film has been made. It was presented to the Ministry of Culture which gave it financial support and for the time being everything is fine. I may not be answering your question, but that is what I wanted to say. The film has been made. The film is there. I apologize I'm not running away from your question. We have further projects and we certainly hope these future films will be made. There won't be any obstacles. Two days ago when I spoke with the Minister of Culture I said to him I had two projects I hoped would take place and he said, 'Well, show me the screenplay and we'll read them.' There was a quote in Le Monde from the Culture minister 'flowers can grow, but we'll only water the ones we like.'"
Unbeknownst to many Americans, a bill has just been passed in Russia that bans swearing in film and books. "Leviathan" isn't at the level of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but it does include foul language. It was another depressing political subject that Zvyagintsev, who was beaming as he walked into the room, was asked to address.
"The bill has been signed, but as this law will enter into force on the 1st of July if the law is actually implemented," Zvyagintsev says. "We should be entitled to screen the film as it was shot before the first of July. I don't think we used too many swear words in the film. Each word was carefully weighed. We wondered how necessary it was to use these words in the dialogue and each word was carefully chosen. I think this is just a very lively way of expressing ones self. These laws that ban things aren't very suitable in my eyes. In the film it was truly necessary to use this kind of language and swear words."
The language bill could be a convenient way for the Russian government to discourage theatrical distribution for "Leviathan," but they'll earn even more pressure from the West if the picture takes home the Golden Palm Saturday night. That's one reason Saturday night's awards ceremony will jump from the entertainment section to the homepage of many news websites around the world if the jury goes Zvyagintsev's way.