Censor of Attention: Is this Russian propaganda or a triumph of free speech?

In Leviathan, a sharp and thoughtfulnew Russian drama, everyone is drunk almost all of the time. Of course, the drink of choice is vodka, and the characters imbibe at any time of day and for any reason—to celebrate, to mourn, or just to pass the time. If Leviathan were an American film about Russia, we would say it relies too heavily on the stereotype of Russians as blustery, macho alcoholics. But since it was made by Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev with support from the country’s own Ministry of Culture, it seems instead a shockingly incisive piece of social satire, the most significant piece of self-criticism to emerge from Russia in some time.

The biblically-tinged story is set in a small coastal town, where a corrupt mayor tries to bully a family off its land. Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov), the patriarch, is already bitter and defeated when we first meet him, but he has one last ace up his sleeve: an old army friend, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who’s now an influential Moscow lawyer. Dmitriy comes to stay with Nikolay, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and their teenage son, while attempting to use his influence to keep the mayor and his bulldozers at bay.

It’s a gripping and unsentimental work that benefits from a terrific lead performance. Serebryakov plays Nikolay as a hothead whose anger gradually turns inward under the burden of his Job-like trials. As Nikolay sinks deeper into despair and out of his wife’s good graces, Dmitriy embarks on an affair with Lilya that threatens to tear apart the family he came there to save. It can’t end well. Leviathan threatens us with bloodshed—when alcohol and guns are involved, death usually follows—but it is more interested in the slow, gradual violence of personal and political oppression, embodied in the cold, black waves that crash into the rocky shore in the film’s opening and closing shots.

Still, there are clues that Leviathan has bigger fish to fry. A photo of Vladimir Putin hangs ominously off-center in the mayor’s office. A TV in the background displays news coverage of the Pussy Riot controversy. Eventually, the film’s politics bubble to the surface when a group of friends fire automatic weapons at framed photos of past Russian leaders at a drunken birthday party. It’s hard to imagine how Russian officials not only agreed to partially fund Leviathan but even nominated it as the country’s entry for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars (it’s currently the frontrunner and won a Golden Globe already).

Then again, real-life Russian officials have made rooting out corruption a stated goal, so perhaps Leviathan simply seemed like a good messaging. If so, its political impact is harder to parse: Is this a shining example of great art flourishing under an oppressive state or an accidental case of propaganda? Only time will tell, but its cinematic achievements are undeniable. Capturing with bold precision this moment when free speech in Russia seems both possible and hopelessly out of reach, Leviathan is a whale of a film, just as powerful and dangerous as its namesake.

Leviathan opens Friday, Jan. 23 at the Avalon Theatre.