'Leviathan' leads a Russian invasion at Cannes

CANNES, France (AP) — Amid unrest in eastern Ukraine and a return to Cold War-like politics, a powerful satire that depicts local corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia has stormed the Cannes Film Festival.

Andrei Zviaguintsev's "Leviathan" premiered Friday in Cannes after earning some of the best reviews of the festival for its tale of a Job-like family man stripped of his seaside home by the crooked mayor of a small North Russia town. He's offered less than a fifth of its value, harassed by local authorities and given mere lip service by the courts. In the mayor's office, a portrait of Putin looms overhead.

But while some wished to label "Leviathan" an artistically crafted indictment of contemporary Russia, director Zviaguintsev disputed such a reading. He said he was initially inspired by a story about a Colorado man who went on a rampage after being evicted.

"This story could have taken place anywhere in the world," said Zviaguintsev. "But for me there is nothing closer to my heart than Russia." Producer Alexandre Rodnianski pointed out that approximately 35 percent of the film was financed by the state through the Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund. But Zviaguintsev acknowledged that the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, didn't like the film after recently seeing it.

Rodnianski said he hopes to release the film in Russia in September. "We'll see how it will be received in Russia," said the producer. "Definitely we expect this movie to be challenging." Only one Russian film has ever won Cannes' top honor, the Palme d'Or, for which "Leviathan" is considered a contender. The festival's awards will be handed out Saturday night.

The lone Russian director to win the Palme d'Or was Mikhail Kalatozov for 1958's "The Cranes Are Flying." During the decades of the USSR, Russian relations with the Cannes Film Festival were often strained, as Soviet delegates sought to ensure that only films showing the country in a positive light played at the festival.

In his memoir "Citizen Cannes," Cannes president Gilles Jacob wrote of Russian masterpieces like Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andre Rublev": "The authorities never wanted to give them to us." Tarkovsky's films often premiered in Cannes, despite Soviet objections.

The 50-year-old Zviaguintsev (who has often been compared to Tarkovsky) is one of Russia's most acclaimed filmmakers. "Leviathan" is his fourth film; his first, "The Return," won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2003.

"Leviathan" is the sole Russian film in competition for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, but there are other movies at the festival that relate heavily to Russia. Gabe Polsky's hockey documentary "Red Army" depicts the grueling Soviet program to build elite hockey players, many of whom later left for the National Hockey League in the U.S. Sergei Loznitsa's "Maiden" documents the uprising in Ukraine and the protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych. (Presidential elections are to be held Sunday in Ukraine.) Michel Hazanavicius' "The Search" depicts the Second Chechen War, portraying the Russian army as a grim killing machine.

When asked about what statement he was making about Russia, Hazanavicius hesitated to answer and then said he was interested in telling a humanistic story about individuals in wartime. Zviaguintsev, too, didn't want to characterize his film as political.

"In all counties of the world all around the Earth, the problem of liberty is important. It's the duty of everyone to combat the state," he said. "Either you don't talk about the problem or you address it in an honest and frank manner."

The threat of censorship wasn't unfathomable to Zviaguintsev, who argued against legislation scheduled to soon go into effect in Russia that would restrict films from including profane language. Still, he said he's resolved to keep making films in his native country.

"For the time being, everything is absolutely fine," he said of the Russian reaction to "Leviathan." ''The film has been made. The film is there."

Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle

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