'Living in Russia is like being in a minefield'
Andrei Zvyagintsev has a reputation for being polite but tight-lipped. Understandably. At Cannes this year, he won an award for the most searing attack on the current Russian political system ever shot. Yet, he said at the time, his aim was "certainly not to confront power". Yes, Leviathan shows ordinary Russians crushed beneath a fiendishly corrupt bureaucracy. But it was inspired by a case in the US, he said, and is intended as a universal parable.
I arrive on a chilly autumn afternoon at the sleek Moscow offices of his producer, expecting more of the same mild-mannered obfuscation. An expression of faint alarm greets me as I'm introduced as the Guardian's Moscow correspondent.
"Oh, so you mainly write about politics?" he asks, somewhat nervously.
But as soon as we start to speak, it's as if a dam has broken. Carefully measured allegory is swapped for blunt straight-talking. He pauses only once in 90 minutes – to take a phone call from a friend whose wife is ill. He uses an iPhone 4, which, by the standards of the Moscow beau monde, is the equivalent of packing an old Nokia brick.
In the days before our meeting, the Russian film board had – to widespread amazement – nominated Leviathan as the national entry for the foreign language Oscar, despite its manifestly not promoting a patriotic agenda, as per government policy. Was he surprised by the move? A soliloquy follows about the difficulty of building a career in modern-day Russia. He speaks quietly, with consideration – and unmistakable anger.
"It's like being in a minefield, this is the feeling you live with here. It's very hard to build any kind of prospects – in life, in your profession, in your career – if you are not plugged in to the values of the system. It's a stupid construction of society, and unfortunately the eternal curse of our territory. The ideas of the rule of law, of equal rights are hardly discussed here. There is discussion in society, but it's pointless. I have a feeling of the absolute futility of pretending to the right to have a say in any situation. I've turned 50 and I've never voted in my life. Because I'm absolutely certain that in our system it's a completely pointless step".
He takes a breath. "So to answer your question: yes, I was pleasantly surprised".
Leviathan is about what an individual can do faced with the might of a monstrous state. Aleksei Serebryakov is Nikolai, a rugged chap who looks like Stuart Pearce after 600 consecutive nights on the vodka. For generations, his family has lived in the same cottage overlooking the sea. The land on which it sits is coveted by the local mayor, an obese, spirits-sodden bandit who, Nikolai suspects, wants to build a luxury mansion on the spot. Using his influence with the local police and courts, the mayor obtains an eviction order and pitifully small compensation payout.
The film opens as Nikolai's appeal is overruled by a judge reading her lengthy verdict in a mindless rapid monotone, a Kafkaesque ritual familiar to anyone who's spent time in a Russian courtroom. He enlists the help of an old Moscow friend, now a hotshot lawyer, and so begins an epic battle in which nobody's motivation turns out to be 100% pure.
The film, which many reckoned to be the best at Cannes this year, is Zvyagintsev's fourth. He spent most of his first 40 years determined to become an actor. Schooldays in Novosibirsk, a Siberian city right in the middle of Russia's vast landmass, were spent "dreaming of theatre, obsessed with it". First came conscription in the Red Army theatre troupe, then he arrived in Moscow in 1986, aged 22, just as Soviet society was on the cusp of enormous change.
Work did not flood in. He spent years cleaning, sweeping leaves and shovelling snow as a dvornik – quintessential Moscow work now largely done by low-paid migrants from Central Asia – devouring books and films in his spare time. "I'd seen Al Pacino in Bobby Deerfield, and I went bonkers. In Russia it was shown in black and white; when I saw the colour version it was a completely different effect. But I saw how he acted and was amazed, I couldn't understand how he was able to do it".
He began to pick up small parts in adverts or trashy soaps. A friend suggested he helped out with directing; his first film was a cheap ad for a furniture salon.
By the early 2000s, Zvyagintsev was still front of camera, but also more accomplished behind it. He cut his teeth shooting half-hour detective stories for a serial; a producer spotted his talent and in 2001 suggested he make a film.
The Return (2003), his debut feature, won Zvyagintsev the Golden Lion in Venice, international acclaim and inevitable comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky, whose allegorical and enigmatic epics his work echoes. Then came The Banishment (2007), his only film not to be received ecstatically, then return-to-form Elena (2011), a brooding family drama set in contemporary Moscow, where both the haves and the have-nots make equally unappealing moral choices. The film shows Moscow as a soulless, interminable dystopia; the city has rarely looked so disgusting.
Yet with Elena, the case could plausibly be made that it is simply a film about the human condition that happens to take place in Russia. Surely he can't really claim the same for Leviathan?
"The ideas at the heart of it are relevant everywhere," he smiles. "But of course it's a film about Russia. It's a very Russian film".
Indeed. Leviathan could not be more forthrightly Russian if a bear were to waltz through its opening credits playing a balalaika. Everything from the courtrooms to the churches to the traffic cops are distinctively, quintessentially Russian. And lest we be in any doubt that this is the real, tangible Russia rather than some imaginary, parallel Russia, there are references to Pussy Riot and a portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs on the wall of the corrupt mayor's office.
That picture was there when the crew arrived; they shot in a real government building in a remote northern backwater. Nothing at all needed to be confected or changed. "We live in a feudal system when everything is in the hands of one person, and everyone else is in a vertical of subordination," says Zvyagintsev, explaining the power structure of modern Russia that defines the film, where kissing upwards and kicking downwards are the main modes of operation.
The film's greatest rage is reserved for those who deal in empty moralising. I ask about the recent law banning blasphemy in cinemas and theatres, which has led to Leviathan requiring heavy cuts to remove the copious swearing in order to secure release. "I think it's a stupid, idiotic rule that has not been thought through," he says. "As are many other rules. Over recent times, the parliament has surprised us a lot with its initiatives. They call themselves 'fighters for morality'. Maybe they really are morally pure and want to make us just like them. But they don't seem to understand that their task is to make people live better, not make them live more ethically".
Yet it is perhaps the church that comes in for Leviathan's most sledgehammer satire. "We are reawakening the soul of the Russian people," intones the film's imperious bishop, voice shaking with righteous anger as he reels off a list of enemies who would undermine Russia. It is a voice that could come from the daily evening news bulletins on state-controlled television. This bishop, with his gold and mahogany office, contrasts with a local bedraggled priest who gives the distraught Nikolai an impromptu sermon on the tests that God might have in store. Zvyagintsev describes himself as secular, but a believer. When he was 28, he says, he decided he wanted to be christened, only to find out that his grandparents had done this secretly when he was two years old.
Leviathan's portrayal of a venal, organised church, along with a sickeningly corrupt political system and a sloshed, atomised society, could not be further from the Russia that the authorities want to portray.
Leviathan even received partial funding from the Ministry of Culture, but new regulations imply that only patriotic films will do so in the future. "Nobody is against propaganda films that would support the foundations of the state. But they also have to take care of all the others, or there will simply be a catastrophe. People will live like in North Korea, where they are hostages, and are certain that their path is the only correct one".
Zvyagintsev swims resolutely against the tide. One remark by Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who, earlier this year, said openly that he did not like Leviathan, seems especially to irritate.
"He said: 'Let all the flowers grow, but we will only water the ones we like'. After these words he should have been fired, because this is a direct violation of the constitution, a direct violation of human expression. You cannot impose rules on art. Everybody should be equal. Government help, without which art cannot function, should be equally spread between all participants".
Leviathan dramatises one man's dilemma of whether to try to stand up to the monster of the state. So what does Zvyagintsev, the despairing, firebrand non-voter, think?
"A lot of people think that you have to abide by the theory of small actions; that you should do whatever you can from your position. My position is that of a cinema director. I'm not politically active. But I can't not react to what is happening around me".