An Oscar nominee, Putin and off-screen truth

These are the days of unconventional movie-release tactics. A few weeks ago, as cinemas begged off screening “The Interview,” the comedy that infuriated North Korea, Sony banked on streaming revenues.

The makers of “Leviathan,” the Russian film that won a Golden Globe award last weekend, went Sony one better: They watched pirates release their work on torrents and free-streaming sites, and refused to go after the perpetrators.

“Leviathan’s” off-screen history may say more about modern Russia’s controversial nature than the movie itself does.

Brilliant cinematography and a Philip Glass soundtrack aside, the film has a fairly standard plot, familiar to readers of modern Russian novels – and news sites. The director, Andrei Zvyagintsev, says he drew inspiration from the story of Marvin Heemeyer, the Colorado car mechanic who took vengeance into his own hands after his city forced him to give up the land on which he’d built a muffler shop.

Transplanting that seed into Russian soil yielded a bitter, hopeless crop. Here’s “Leviathan” in a nutshell: The perennially drunk, pig-like mayor of a northern Russian town wants to demolish the seaside home of a hard-drinking auto mechanic, Kolya. Devilish Orthodox priests egg him on as Kolya’s resistance plan collapses in a vodka-induced haze. A church takes the doomed dwelling’s place.

I know Russians who were impressed – and others who said it was cynically made for export. I liked Glass’s score, so I’m willing to settle for Russian critic Yuri Saprykin’s middle ground: “It tells a totally universal story in a language understandable anywhere within the European, Christian civilization, whereas the recognizable circumstances of time and place are only understandable to us, so we’re the only ones capable of being irritated by them.”

Those irritants make it hard to believe that the movie was actually made with the financial support of Russia’s culture ministry, headed by Vladimir Medinsky, a key architect of President Vladimir Putin’s new ideology based on Russia’s erstwhile imperial greatness and Orthodox spirituality. Medinsky’s approach to funding movies is to back only projects that reflect those values.

“Let all flowers bloom, but we will only water those we like, or those we consider necessary,” the minister said last summer. And in December, he clarified his stand in harsher terms: “The only thing that I consider pointless is to use culture ministry money to make movies that don’t even criticize but spit at elected authorities. I mean those who make these ‘Russia is crap' movies. Why would we? It would be a kind of state masochism.”

Medinsky saw “Leviathan” at the Cannes festival and didn’t like it, though he acknowledged it showed a measure of talent. To the Putin ideologist’s taste, there was too much vodka and there were too many curse words. In Cannes, however, the film snagged the best screenplay prize, and then Russia’s Oscar committee nominated it for the U.S. Academy Award. So Medinsky kept watering the dubious flower. In September, he told TASS, the state news agency, that rumors that the ministry was about to ban the movie were false and that, on the contrary, he’d asked “Leviathan” producer Alexander Rodnyansky to make more than 1,000 copies for theaters so as many people as possible could see it.

And when “Leviathan” won the Golden Globe, Medinsky was all praise: The victory, he told TASS, was evidence of Russian movie-makers mastery – and don’t forget his ministry helped fund the project!

Wait a minute, though – doesn’t this film “spit at elected authorities”? (The mayor, sitting under a Putin portrait, is one of the most disgusting corrupt politicians I’ve ever seen on screen.) Doesn’t it do its best to show how “Russia is crap”?

Oh, it does all that, but it also wins prizes for Russia – and the minister’s support may even sow some doubt in Putin critics’ minds: Could it be that the Kremlin regime is not that oppressive and intolerant of opposing views? Could it be that Putin doesn’t demand that the country’s problems be glossed over? Could the president, perhaps, sympathize with hapless Kolya, not with the mayor?

Therein lies a clue to the Putin regime’s attitude toward the West. Despite all the hostility over NATO expansion, Ukraine and economic sanctions, Putin’s Russia wants recognition of its greatness. Putin was in seventh heaven when Russian athletes won the most medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics last year. He will probably congratulate Zvyagintsev if he does win an Oscar, and it will be up to his propaganda machine to find an explanation for why official Moscow celebrates a movie that portrays life under its rule as a booze-filled, bottomless well of desperation.

The work is already under way. As Kirill Razlogov, program director of the Moscow film festival, put it: “It’s not an essentially anti-Russian movie, though a large part of the audience sees it as such because it falls in with Western notions of Russia. The leaden nastiness of Russian life was always a beloved subject for Russian classics, including literary ones. Did Saltykov-Shchedrin, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy have to portray Russia that way? It’s an idle question. Great art has the right to any subject and any way of treating it.”

And wasn’t Russia’s only previous Golden Globe awarded to the megalomaniac Soviet screen version of “War and Peace”? Here you go, an unbroken line from the imperial greats to Soviet glory to modern Russia’s politics-transcending conquests. It’s a line with a twist, though, and that twist explains why Rodnyansky says he won’t go after the pirates who put his movie on the Internet.

When “Leviathan” finally premieres in Russia next month, all the curse words will be censored. “Every time we listened to a bit where a cut had been made, curse words were heard in the studio, so exasperated we were at these necessary measures,” Zvyagintsev said. “The choice was obvious: Either the film would be censored or movie-goers won’t be able to see it. The law doesn’t ban DVDs of the original version, though, so I recommend that the prudes and hypocrites purchase the disk and enjoy the swearing in the privacy of their homes.”

Instead, almost everyone I know has by now watched the movie on pirate sites: It makes sense to see the uncensored version, edited just as Zvyagintsev intended. For the most conscientious torrent users, there’s an opportunity to make a donation to the filmmakers through a special site set up by a volunteer. Rodnyansky has promised to pass on the payments to a children’s charity.

So “Leviathan” isn’t going to make tens of million of dollars from streaming, as “The Interview” has done (and still not recouped its budget). Who cares, however, if it’s a matter of Russian glory, the culture ministry foots some of the bill and the censored version will pack movie theaters? The makers’ acquiescence in the regime’s prudish restrictions and its cynical public-relations ploys comment more powerfully on what makes today’s Russia tick than does Kolya’s on-screen failure to hold on to his house.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.