Rus­sia and Amer­ica at the Os­cars

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Os­car has spo­ken. Nei­ther Leviathan, the Rus­sian film nom­i­nated for the best For­eign Lan­guage Film, nor Amer­i­can Sniper, nom­i­nated for Best Pic­ture, won. Yet both, in a way, are the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive films of the year, as each cap­tures the essence of why Rus­sia and the United States now seem doomed to wage a new Cold War.

Fol­low­ing Rus­sia’s in­va­sion of Ukraine, Leviathan faced an up­hill public-re­la­tions battle. But Leviathan’s bleak por­trait of con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian life ac­tu­ally con­firms many of the rea­sons why Amer­i­cans have been largely du­bi­ous about Rus­sia’s abil­ity to re­form fol­low­ing com­mu­nism’s col­lapse.

That doubt has been re­flected in popular cul­ture. Since 1991, Hol­ly­wood has doc­u­mented Amer­i­can mis­trust of post-Soviet Rus­sia in a se­ries of films – for ex­am­ple, The Saint, Air­force One, The Golden Compass of 2006, Salt, and The Novem­ber Man. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s thug­gish for­eign pol­icy has proved th­ese Rus­so­phobes right, so nom­i­nat­ing Leviathan, the su­perb biopsy of his regime, seemed only right.

And, though Os­car did not anoint Leviathan, the film de­serves all of the ac­co­lades it has re­ceived. Di­rected by An­drey Zvyag­int­sev in an eerie style that one might call the “re­al­ism of de­spair,” the film is both epic and deeply nu­anced. The ti­tle harks back to the book of Job and re­calls Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick. Set in a small town on the Bar­ents Sea, Leviathan shows that there is no es­cape, not even in the Arc­tic, from the Moscow-cen­tric state and its hyp­o­crit­i­cal dop­pel­ganger, the Or­tho­dox Church. The gi­ant skele­ton of a whale – pos­si­bly Leviathan it­self – is beached on the shore­line, along with the car­casses of old boats, be­neath a se­vere gray sky that frames a hu­man land­scape of po­lit­i­cal abuse, adul­tery, law­less­ness, and the cyn­i­cism of all-pow­er­ful priests. The story, akin to Alexander Solzhen­it­syn’s am­bi­tious 1962 master­piece One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich, steadily in­dicts the cor­rup­tion of state power – a power ever-will­ing to kill and to align it­self with an even more cor­rupt power, the Or­tho­dox Church. Like com­mu­nism, which once promised ab­so­lu­tion for the worst crimes in ex­change for loy­alty, Rus­sia’s cur­rent state reli­gion al­lows, even en­cour­ages, mis­deeds – in­clud­ing mur­der – so long as one is loyal to God.

Niko­lai, Leviathan’s


main char­ac­ter, sees his life con­sumed by the fight to save his seashore prop­erty from the town’s mayor. “I’ll kill him if he builds a palace here,” shouts Niko­lai, in a ref­er­ence to cur­rent Rus­sian lead­ers’ pro­cliv­ity for erect­ing gar­ish mon­u­ments to their per­sonal splen­dor: Putin’s Ital­ianate palace on the Black sea, for ex­am­ple, al­legedly cost more than $1 bln.

At the end of his strug­gle, Niko­lai’s life is ru­ined. His wife is killed, and he stands ac­cused of mur­der­ing her for an af­fair she briefly had with his friend. At the end, we learn that Niko­lai was per­se­cuted to make room not for the mayor’s palace, but for a cathe­dral. Even the Rus­sian clichés – tragedy stem­ming from over­ween­ing power, vodka, swear­ing, shoot­ing, and shout­ing – only strengthen the film’s ex­tra­or­di­nary de­pic­tion of the lo­cal ef­fects of dis­tant and dev­as­tat­ing forces.

This is Rus­sian pol­i­tics at its most de­based. In Stalin’s time, the mas­ter­pieces of, say, Boris Paster­nak or Dmitri Shostakovich were en­trusted to give artis­tic voice to a si­lenced civil so­ci­ety. So it is ironic that Leviathan was partly fi­nanced by Rus­sia’s cul­ture min­istry – and telling that the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties had no in­ter­est in its win­ning at the Os­cars. In­deed, Cul­ture Min­is­ter Vladimir Medin­sky re­cently crit­i­cised the film for its dark­ness and pes­simism. Amer­i­can Sniper, di­rected by Clint East­wood, re­flects US morals as much as Leviathan re­flects the cur­rent Rus­sian Zeit­geist. But, where Leviathan ex­am­ines Putin’s Rus­sia with the un­flinch­ing eye of a sur­geon, Amer­i­can Sniper merely trum­pets sup­posed na­tional val­ues with no con­sid­er­a­tion of their ap­pli­ca­tion around the world. Dur­ing four tours in Iraq as a sol­dier/mis­sion­ary, a stand-up Texan, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) be­comes known as Leg­end, a killer with a saviour com­plex. Amer­i­can Sniper, loosely based on Kyle’s mem­oir, touts the fron­tier men­tal­ity – a neo-cow­boy movie made by a for­mer cow­boy­movie star. Just as Leviathan shows a Rus­sia caught in the throes of a po­lit­i­cal night­mare, Amer­i­can Sniper shows a coun­try trapped by its heroic mythol­ogy – de­fined in count­less West­ern movies – of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism at home and de­fense of free­dom and or­der abroad.

But the world has changed, and many no longer view Amer­ica’s global role as an ex­pres­sion of its unique in­no­cence and good­ness. Given ev­ery­thing we have learned about the Iraq War – false claims about weapons of mass de­struc­tion, nonex­is­tent links be­tween Sad­dam Hus­sein and Al Qaeda, and so on – East­wood’s film comes across as a work of mar­ket­ing, not re­flec­tion and con­tem­pla­tion. East­wood has merely up­dated his ear­lier films – think The Out­law Josey Wales or Pale Rider – with their un­wa­ver­ing con­vic­tion that Amer­ica’s god of right­eous­ness must pre­vail.

In short, Amer­i­can Sniper fails where Le­vi­tathan suc­ceeds. Ge­orge Or­well neatly sum­marised why: “All pro­pa­ganda is a lie even when it’s telling the truth.”

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