Russia's most divisive director releases Oscar-nominated film in UK

Alec Luhn
A shot from Loveless, director Andrei Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated film about a boy who goes missing amid his parents' divorce - Sony Pictures Classics

As the father in Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Loveless drives to work, ignorant of the fact that his son has just gone missing, he listens to accusations on the radio that the media are “whipping up public hysteria” about the end of the world.  

The director's careful choice of radio programme hints at the tense siege mentality that predominates in Russia, where state television breathlessly details nefarious American plots and restrictive laws are passed so fast that parliament is often nicknamed the “crazy printer”.

It is not quite as politically charged as his 2014 masterpiece Leviathan, but the latest movie's astringent depiction of Russia in the late Putin years has sparked similar criticisms of Russophobia at home following its June debut. It opens in the UK on Friday and in the United States on 16 February.

The anger is tempered by a grudging respect since Loveless, like Leviathan before it, has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign picture, as well as a BAFTA.

In an interview with The Telegraph, the 54-year-old filmmaker argued that he simply reflects Russian life, warts and all.

“The artist's role in society, his responsibility, is namely to give a warning signal, to paint the picture as it is, not to look at it through rose-coloured glasses and build castles in the sand,” he said. 

Andrei Zvyagintsev at the 90th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Hollywood on Monday Credit: Chris Pizzello /Invision/AP

Mr Zvyagintsev's route to become Russia's most divisive director has been a long and hardly obvious one. Brought up by a single mother Russian teacher in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, he studied acting in Moscow, but ended up working as a janitor. A fan of classic European cinema, he finally found his way into the industry by shooting a furniture advertisement. 

The Return, his first feature film, came in 2003, a dreamily beautiful but emotionally tense tale of a long-absent father's ill-fated fishing trip with his sons.  

From the start, Mr Zvyagintsev's success was bittersweet. In an eerie case of life imitating art, the film's 15-year-old star Vladimir Garin drowned in the same lake where it was shot less than three months before The Return won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The rich symbolism and almost mythical settings drew comparisons to Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky, but Mr Zvyagintsev has since shifted to a hard-hitting realism rooted in contemporary Russia.

He also has spoken out in support of pro-Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, now serving a dubious 20-year arson sentence, and controversial theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was arrested on embezzlement charges last year.

Mr Zvyagintsev's 2014 film Leviathan was nominated for an Oscar but criticised by the Russian culture ministry Credit: Handout

But it was Leviathan, which like many Russian films was funded in part by the culture ministry, that put the director on a collision course with the authorities. In the film, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs in the office of the corrupt mayor as he schemes to seize the shorefront property of a hard-drinking car mechanic and his family. 

Shortly after it was filmed, Mr Putin's government annexed Crimea and backed a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

“Politics enters into each home and asserts itself with such unbelievable force that it becomes part of our films, because it's part of our everyday lives,” Mr Zvyagintsev said.

He recalled how a private showing of Leviathan at the culture ministry ended in an argument with minister Vladimir Medinsky. 

Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky at a press conference on Monday for an upcoming Easter festival Credit:  Stanislav Krasilnikov

After the film won Russia its first Golden Globe since 1969's War and Peace, Mr Medinsky complained of the lack of positive characters and said its director was in love with “fame, red carpets and golden statuettes”. 

“I thought the presence of the culture ministry in the titles … could be a protection of some sort, but I was mistaken,” said Leviathan producer Alexander Rodnyansky. “Many people thought that if the government gives money it can order what it wants to see.”

So for Loveless, Mr Rodnyansky instead sought funding from European foundations and private investors. One of them, Gleb Fetisov, was included on the US list of Russian billionaires last month who could be targeted for sanctions.

Producer Alexander Rodnyansky poses with Mr Zvyagintsev at a Hollywood Reporter function on Monday Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for THR

Although it's no Leviathan, the new film about a boy who goes missing before his parents' imminent divorce cannot but be seen as a criticism of contemporary Russian society.

The vituperative mother is mostly interested in social media and her new high-status boyfriend, while the father's main fear is that his religious boss will fire him for leaving his wife. The police are unhelpful.

State newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta admitted Mr Zvyagintsev had “told his horror story so coherently and convincingly,” but griped that his “unhealthy and counterproductive introspection” was forming Russia's image abroad.

Yet while Mr Zvyagintsev ridicules ostentatious piety and incompetent authorities, his preoccupation with Russian spirituality and nationality stretches back to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. His movies are in some ways far more Russian than the stream of Hollywood-style war dramas and comedies filmed here in recent years. 

The mother and son at breakfast in a still from Loveless Credit: Sony Pictures Classics via AP

“He discusses political and social topics, but is metaphorical at same time,” said movie critic Anton Dolin. “There's only one director like this in Russia and the world.”

Asked about his next move, Mr Zvyagintsev said he had no concrete plans for a film yet, but chuckled when asked if the next picture might be more light-hearted than the last five. 

“When life is happier, then the films will be happier,” he said. “I say that, but no one believes me.”