Andrey Zvyagintsev, cinema and the war in Ukraine

Tacita Dean, The Crimea, 2001


Wars lead to immeasurable suffering; How do filmmakers react to them, especially Russian ones?

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, which began in February 2022, caused tectonic effects that go beyond military prowess – what happens, by the way, in all wars, a disruptive phenomenon par excellence. It is not known precisely what the desire and reasons of those who have the power to initiate such an endeavor are: they are multiple and varied, always polarized and radical. What is known is that wars lead to immeasurable suffering, not only among the professionals who practice them – the military forces – but above all with regard to the civilian population, confined to the Crossfire. Events in Ukraine are no exception to this observation. And how do filmmakers react to all this, especially Russian ones?

Andrey Zvyagintsev was one of those who came to public to express their repudiation of the invasion, after recovering from a long illness, as recalled by another conflict-averse director, Sergei Loznitsa. It's not an easy topic, many directors, like Nikita Mikhalkov, Putin's personal friend, have declared their support for the invasion. Andrey's quarrels with power in the Kremlin are nothing new, his “Leviathan” unleashed a wave of positive and negative criticism, a clear symptom of the ideological split that plagues contemporary Russia. How a single film can have such an impact – is something that has not escaped the analysis of astute observers of Russian cinematography, such as Nancy Condee and Vlad Sukrov. “Leviathan” was released in 2014, its first screening took place at the Cannes Film Festival in May: on February 27 of that year, Russian troops captured strategic locations in Crimea, followed by the installation of a pro-Russian government and the declaration of independence, on 16 March 2014. The occupation was the prelude to the current invasion, in 2022: examining the film's repercussion raises questions, therefore, still present in the current context, now saturated with the consequences of a war of unpredictable proportions.


The (few) films of Andrey Zvyagintsev

Born in the city of Novosibirsk, Siberia, in 1964 – the year that marked the beginning of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union – Andrey had the priceless Al Pacino as his teenage idol. Becoming an actor was the inevitable outcome, the youthful dream. He studied theater in his hometown and, after two years in the Army, managed to move to Moscow in 1986. In the capital, he graduated from the prestigious Russian Institute of Theater Arts, known by the acronym GITIS – which did not prevent him from survive, from spending years cleaning houses, raking autumn leaves and shoveling snow in the street. Winters in Russia are very severe., said in an interview, but okay, the snow wasn't bad. The problem was the ice, I had to bang on it for hours just to break it… the ice nearly killed me.

Zvyagintsev soon realized that there were better actors than he was, and he ended up directing episodes for a television series."The comeback” was his first film, made in 2003, more or less 12 years after the fall of the communist empire. Then, there were few feature films, but all outstanding: “O Desterro”, in 2007; “Elena”, 2011; “Leviathan”, 2014; It is "Without love", 2017.

"The comeback” – which won the Golden Lion in Venice – tells the story of the sudden reappearance of Andrei and Ivan's father, after 12 years of unexplained absence. The first sequence shows the boys in a test of courage: diving into a lake from the top of a tower, a challenge that Ivan, the youngest, refuses. The director himself suggested an allegorical reading with a religious background: a metaphorical intrusion of God into human life, a father who comes unexpectedly to confront the organized world of his children, linked to their mother and grandmother. The first identification of the father is the mother's word, a character that radiates a Renaissance beauty – and confirmation comes with checking the old photo, kept in an illustrated Bible in the attic of the house, with open pages portraying Isaac's creation and sacrifice for Abraham.

Reacting to sociological readings, which saw in the film a description of the social deterioration of the family, the director stated: I would say that (the film) deals with the metaphysical incarnation of the movement of the soul from Mother to Father. But who is this father who doesn't hesitate to kill his son by divine order? And who is this God who would demand such a test of loyalty as that? The visual compositions, the light variations, the undefined horizons – father and children set out on a fishing and knowledge trip, until they reach an island – collaborate for the allegorical atmosphere, that is, thoughts or emotions symbolically expressing an object to signify another. Doubts regarding the father's dangerousness, his mysterious phone calls – never made explicit – transcend the immediate plane of filial fear and are transfigured into pictorial depths. A tower, vertigo – again verticality seems to define the events.

With "Elena”, from 2011, the scene jumped to modern Moscow, with class conflicts characteristic of the somewhat savage capitalism that took over contemporary Russian society – nothing that is not recognizable to the western audience, but always a little shocking when confronted with utopia socialism that prevailed in the USSR. Elena, a middle-aged woman lives with Vladimir, a wealthy man. The apartment is sumptuous and modern, large spaces and exposed concrete: the neighborhood, privileged in Moscow. The routine, infallible: she cleans the apartment, makes breakfast, turns off the television that puts Vladimir to sleep and wakes him up in the morning. They sleep in separate rooms: eventually, he calls her for sex. They don't seem to share many things, but the harmony of the unspoken prevails.

The contrast is Elena's son: he lives in a peripheral neighborhood, unemployed with a pregnant wife and two children. Drinking is the option, and Elena does what she can to help him. Vladimir controls the money donations, she secretly uses the credit card he gave her. The surroundings visually reproduce Soviet images of the Khrushchev era, spaced and tall housing developments. Elena lives to make others happy, everything in the lives of those around her must happen to mitigate existence and make it less painful. It is up to her to see that the imbalances are mitigated, her subservient attitude towards Vladimir seems to be a character trait of hers. According to Andrey Zvyagintsev, the film does not talk about class struggle or any other sociological aspect. Events lead to Elena feeling punished: the outside world is transformed into an apocalyptic panorama, the smooth and aseptic shielding of the apartment is pierced by the image of a dead horse. Her moral state begins to deteriorate. Asked whether the metaphor of the horse was reminiscent of Tarkovsky's films, the director replied: it is a strong parallel, but also a terrible one, because for Tarkovsky the horse is always beautiful and strong. But here the horse is dead. I think the dead horse is a feature of our time. There is an absence of faith, an absence of hope for the future.


“Leviathan” or the sea serpent against the patriarch Job

The storyline ofLeviathan” revolves around Nikolai “Kolya” Sergeiev, a married, middle-aged auto mechanic whose property is the object of desire of the corrupt mayor of a small fishing town in the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia. Kolya's family is equally protagonist: his son Romka, and his young wife Lilya. His old friend and lawyer, Dmitri, joins him in the fight to stop the expropriation of the mechanic's ancestral home. The environment is post-Soviet: arbitrariness continues to prevail, the novelty is that the authorities commanded by Mayor Vadim act in collusion with the Orthodox Church. In the mayor's office hangs an official portrait of Putin: the Church's representative there makes no secret of his delight in earthly delights and stands beside the repulsive mayor. A more humble and selfless priest appears towards the end of the film, but his advice to Kolya – submission to God's authority – turns out to be powerless to alleviate his suffering. The plot develops as the characters take on a tragic character: Lilya's infidelity, Kolya's despair, autocratic exercise of power and alcohol, a lot of alcohol. The drift of events is dark: on the seashore, the skeleton of a whale wisely remains as an image without history, without consequence. Death and suffering: human errors lead to an inevitable uncertainty of destinies, loyalties and demands of love between beings.

Although Zvyagintsev resists politicized readings of his films – and insists on a religious view – “Leviathan” was extremely successful in exploring the cracks in the social contract in post-Soviet Russia, i.e. 1990s onwards. The State and its ideological allies are the source of instability that threatens its own citizens – by enunciating this premise, the film puts authorities, the way power is exercised and, ultimately, authentic Russian values ​​into question. The film, of course, aroused heated debates: the Russian press was taken by a flood of articles, especially after the success at international festivals and the nomination for the Oscar for best film in a foreign language. “Leviathan” was accused of reproducing easy stereotypes about Russia to attract Western audiences and festival judges. The depiction of the Orthodox Church and other features such as drinking were hotly contested, whether or not they were true. Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky was in Cannes and found the film disturbing and full of “existential hopelessness”: the director retaliated by accusing the Minister of promoting a conservative agenda and disregarding the artistic value of the works. Newspapers turned their clash into a public duel. After a “leak” on the internet – Zvyagintsev denies any intentionality, attributing it to some festival’s inattention – the film was released in 450 cinemas across Russia in February 2015, further amplifying the public controversy.

The biblical reference that emerges in "Leviathan” is the book of Job, a gentile prophet – that is, a non-Jew – who loses everything, family, properties and health, but does not abandon his integrity, enduring all possible difficulties, at the limit of human understanding. All this because of a challenge that God made to Satan: Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on earth, a perfect and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? Nancy Condee suggests that the image of the whale's skeleton visually anticipates the biblical quote recited by the priest in the final moments of the film. God says to Job:

You can pull Leviathan with a hook
or tie your tongue with a string?
You can put a wire through the nose
or pierce your jaw with a hook?

In the Bible, Leviathan is a sea serpent, present in several accounts, such as the Book of Job, the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Amos and, according to some translations, in the Book of Jonah; it is also mentioned in the Book of Enoch. Leviathan is often the personification of chaos and threatens to eat the damned after their lives. In the end, it is annihilated. Christian theologians identified Leviathan with the demon of envy of mortal sin. Condee adds that, despite the biblical references, “Leviathan” tends to an agnostic ending, as the film does not confirm whether all that suffering finds, after all, redemption – as an artifact of human creation, the act of filming attests to the belief that this result is beyond human knowledge.


“Leviathan” or the political economy of culture

It was only from 1991 onwards that Russia would try to establish itself as it is conventionally called nation in Western vocabulary: political decentralization, the rule of law, democratic and economic freedoms, the right to come and go. the movie, and "Leviathan" in particular, it is a privileged stage where negotiations around this search for a modern national identity are exposed. After more than 20 years under Vladimir Putin, punctuated by authoritarian measures, the country has embarked on a bold and cruel war with neighboring Ukraine. The main rehearsal was Russia's war against Georgia, which lasted five days in August 2008 and ended with Russian control of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, originally located in Georgia and bordering Russia. The occupation of Crimea in 2014, condemned by practically the entire international community, repeated the strategy. The need to legitimize itself in the face of these expansionist strategic movements, by emphasizing external forces (the West) that supposedly aim to destroy Russia, becomes imperative in order to allow the maintenance of power in the current molds.

The manipulation of negative western perceptions linked to the annexation of Crimea by the internal public, mainly through television, allowed for an hypertrophy of patriotic feelings and reinforcement of a positive self-perception by the Russians themselves. By redirecting the focus of the events abroad, at the same time that such events are configured as threats to the territorial integrity and in the limit to the very existence of Russia, the Russian government diverted the attention of the public from the internal ills, such as the worsening of the economic situation , the increase in social inequality, distrust in public institutions and the emergence of interest groups with their own political agenda. After the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the picture became even more complex: economic sanctions tended to increase the population's difficulties, international isolation began to exact a high price, and the cost of war itself, human and economic, intensifies.

Vlad Sukrov analyzed the reverberation of "Leviathan" in the Russian context of 2014, that is, how the internal and external controversy surrounding the film was appropriated by the government discourse as a weapon of soft power in favor of conservative and isolationist positions. The debate allowed the government to ultimately emerge as the protector of traditional Russian values ​​against the liberal and decadent West. At the same time that opposition voices were manifested praising the film, the most ostensible reaction ended up being personified in the figure of the Minister of Culture, Mendinsky, with the State (and Putin) functioning as a mediator of conflicting positions. The intensity of the controversy allowed Russia to use a mixture of different types of soft power, negative and positive: the country is able to broadcast audiovisual products critical of the post-Soviet political culture – "Leviathan" relied on resources from the Ministry of Culture – but is also able to perceive this speech as essentially contrary to real Russian values, and therefore a typical speech of enemy countries. In the end, the government managed to consolidate the majority of its supporters in the domestic public, accusing Zviagintsev of providing an unfair representation of Russia, at a delicate moment, when the occupation of Crimea was being contested abroad – and also internally, by not inconsiderable parties. of the Russian population.

Andrey Zviagintsev, needless to point out, did not use resources from the Ministry of Culture in his 2017 film, “Without love”. The filmmaking scene in Russia has also become more difficult for non-government-aligned filmmakers, in light of developments in the ongoing war in the neighboring country. At the time of the debate, a journalist noted that only President Putin and Patriarch Kirill remained silent on the issue of “Leviathan". As Sukrov recalls – taking a broader historical perspective – the debate on “Leviathan” was ultimately a debate about the future of Russia.

*Joao Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).

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