Russian Movies: The Leviathan, Free Speech, and Ukraine.

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I have seen some Russian movies which I have enjoyed immensely. Others were incomprehensible.  Differences in cultural mindsets may be responsible.

It disturbs me to think that my taste might offend the Russians, with whom I have no beef.  Russia has a long history of combating encroachments on its territory. Victories, such as against Nazism, were as much a boon for the Western World as for itself. If history repeats itself, this should be the starting point for understanding this nation oft represented by the bear, a word which includes the positive definition of “endurance”.

But we are here to comment on some  movies from that part of the globe. Our starting point is the 2015 Oscar contender, Leviathan. I was already aware that some in Russia objected to it, but then it was discovered that another contender, the Polish film Ida, also raised some hue and cry in its home country. This was revealed in an Bloomberg News article by Leonid Berdshidsky. His words, by his antagonistic tone, seem to support the Russian objections. He talks about “sophisticated Western spectators”, thinks these should have an interest in Ida’s competing movies from Eastern Europe, but describes them as “often seem[ing to be] simplistic, but that doesn’t matter”. As simplistic perhaps, as his harsh words on Putin. Criticising simplicity, and simply dismissing the criticism!

Here is my problem, if I praise Leviathan, am I being anti-Russian, which I don’t want to be?  I believe it depends on the perspective.

“Leviathan”,  outside of the Bible, was a word made famous by the British writer, Thomas Hobbes.  Leviathan was the monster, the State.  Though Hobbes admitted the monstrous quality of the state, he was in its favour, without which, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Hmm!  With or without, eh?

What does this have to do with the Russian movie? To believe its Western admirers, and its Russian critics, it makes the Russian State and Church look bad, as leviathans.

I would argue that this, on the one hand, is an argument of the Western leviathan, “the exceptional nation”. On the other hand, further below I will refer to other Russian movies with a similar undertone, excepting the anti-Church part.

If the Russian Orthodox Church objects, it is within its rights, as much as the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops is when it evaluates the aptness of movies based on moral considerations.  Those who have a traditional moral compass are saved both money and disgust, by following the guidelines of this successor to the Legion of Decency.

We also are reminded of the thinking of G. K. Chesterton, who ironically suggested that the truly valiant person is the one who, (I paraphrase from an incorrect Spanish translation, see the 6th point at the link for the original) challenges novel tyrannies, such as the dawn, fresh superstitions, and would care less for what will be, than for what was; as well as for what should be.  That last part is subject to misinterpretation, I’m sure, but “regime change” is a concern with what will be, Putin is concerned with what was, when it was more as it should be, than it is now.

So, looking at the surface of the Russian film, and not thinking like a Russian, I find no clear attack on either the Orthodox Church [an opinion partially or wholly supported by some Western Christian web-sites]; or the Russian State or people in particular.

About the former, it seems ambiguous. Regarding the latter, the criticism is levelled at a small-town mayor and his cronies. He despises Moscow. If this is the case, it is he who is both a petty Leviathan, in his corrupt dealings; it is he who is challenging the leadership in the nation’s capital, and perhaps, it could be concluded that he, as corrupt, is challenging a wholesome government.  It’s the case of the backwater against civilization, this generalization not meaning to denigrate healthy rural habits against paganized city dwellers, where applicable.

The director of the movie may have had other intentions. These are irrelevant to those viewers unaware of them. One could easily understand the movies as a parable about true Leviathans, wherever their seat of power may lie, anywhere in the world.

Of course, we do recognize that the Oscars, like the Nobel prizes, often have a political agenda.

We now attempt to grade the movie such as might be done on the USCCB website.

In addition to the disputed characterizations of corruption, consisting of false witness against one’s neighbour, property theft, and murder, we have teen-age smoking, drinking of alcoholic beverages in unbelievable quantities (maybe it’s only a colourless Eisbier, but no one would buy that), infidelity, an implied suicide, and a scene with undress to the point that it would be of the type found in so-called men’s magazines. Based on these observations, the movie, in our opinion, based on Legion of Decency standards, would be A-III or A-IV [L], tending to the latter, if it is true that religion is made to look bad.

Why We Enjoyed the Movie

Not having read the criticism coming out of Russia, we were limited to our own biases. The first thing that was noticed is that the movie had the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture. For those who believe that this equates to making the film one of propaganda, we can say that the minister himself did not have a positive opinion of the product, and state participation was at around 30%. Further, the director said that he was not interfered with by the government.

Seeing that the Ministry of Culture had supported it, the movie was then interpreted as the honesty by the Russian authorities in allowing such a story, whether true or not, in the tradition of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Below, we will also refer to 2 other Russian films with references to corruption.

The background scenery was reminiscent, to this writer, of paintings by Canadians Tom Thompson or Franklin Carmichael, who celebrated the Canadian Shield: a rough wilderness of stone, trees, and water. [I believe there was yet a better artist, but I can’t determine who it was.]  The skeleton of a beached whale was a magnificent, original touch.

The treatment of corruption reminded us of another movie we enjoyed, Contamination, a species of comedy – horror flick by Rodion Nahapetov, a Ukrainian with several awards from the Soviet Union and Russia, in which a mad scientist, rejected by his colleagues, tries to implant ideologies into the minds of kidnapped individuals.

A teacher on a bicyle, unfortunately near a terrorist attack, is blamed for the same.  The police release him to the scientist.  His daughter looks for him, and has to go through a lot of bureaucratic loops to get to him.

Along the way, some American tourists get involved and help.  An attempt at framing some individuals with drug possession gets some Russian women, and the American, very upset with the police, who back down.  On the way to the psychiatrist’s clinic, the Americans bribe a bus-driver to break the traffic laws, while he in turn bribes the police in order to continue breaking those laws.

The movie is almost pure Hollywood style, which might mean, condemnable.  A question of taste.  As was the case in Leviathan, we were struck by the fact that corruption was depicted.  We interpreted this as showing that Russia is not censored as stated in the West.  A potential rating would be PG, A-III.

Closer to the suitable for limited audience level by USCCB standards is Prohibited Reality, (or, Interceptor) which nevertheless begins with a moral statement about how bad the human race is.  Corrupt politicians are affected by an organization called StopCrim.  To what extant that is supposed to be an earthly organization or something extra-terrestial I could not understand in this fantasy-science fiction, with alien symbols reminiscent of the occult, and a lot of black, thread-and-cables arising from inky sources, reminiscent of Jean-Luc Besson’s transformation of Lucy at the end of that movie, when she leaves her human form.  While Moscow is mentioned in the film, the TV studio shown uses the Roman, not the Cyrillic alphabet.  We enjoyed the imagery that pointed to the studio responsible for its making, Central Partnership, through the mention in the movie of its affiliated station, Avtoradio.

Further, Central Partnership was involved in the movie Forbidden World, which shares many traits of the above movie.  A university student enamoured of Goth discovers an ancient artifact, a shield, inside a forest after, in a huff, she had left her fellow students behind.  Wounded by a fall, and affected by the body of a dead woman, a neo-nazi outfit, using a symbol reminiscent of South Africa in the old days, pre-empts the task of the authentic rescue group to come to her aid. Their objective is to obtain world power through the shield’s properties.  By the end of the movie, she has refused to join her sister witches in their society, returns to university as a decent-looking young woman to present a brilliant thesis, unkowingly in the presence of a sinister-looking government minister, on the conclusions gathered during the class outing.  This movie also had government support, and again, their is a message of fighting fascism.

Russia and Ukraine

Russian movies also do not show, from what I have seen, either the supposed Ukrainian enemy, nor the “fascists”, in a light that one would imagine by reading Western news sources.  On the one hand, is the film version of Taras Bulba, a magnificent Russian-Ukrainian co-production, especially suited to those audiences who like battles on horseback.  Further connections with Ukraine are both through the original author (Pushkin) and the Cossacks.

Another portrayal of co-operation is in a science fiction film –  Paradox Soldiers, in which some young students are transported into World War II Soviet times.  They report that Ukraine is a free country, independent of Russia, which causes stupor among the Soviet officers.  The common enemy is the German army.

The Germans are not shown with the hate that Hollywood uses, although Russians are much more within their rights to be antagonistic.  Instead of a Wehrmacht officer screeching orders, he softly says, “Load … Fire”.  “Load”, in this Russian-accented German, is laden, as in Bin Laden.  “Fire” sounds like “foyer”, American pronunciation.  Impossible to make these words sound like coming from a “Hun”. They even have time for a joke.  A German tank comes bearing down, and it is inquired whether someone had asked for a cab.

Based on information known from the future, the Russians and Ukrainians are able to defeat the Germans.

A third film which shows that the Russians do not make capital out of the opportunities history provides to attack Germany, is Attack on Leningrad.  Never mind that it shows how the Nazis planned to starve the inhabitants to death, leading to surrender in 3 months – which, like other people subjected to indiscriminate bombing, survive and conquer.  Good filming, top actors, and the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture, as well as the city of Saint Petersburg, once named Petrograd, then Leningrad, to comply with temporarily politically-correct naming conventions, the film will disappoint war movie buffs, because the tenacity of the survivors, and moreover, the survival of a British reporter, and not battles, is of paramount importance to the argument.  Another historical touch, if we have not been misled by some misinformation, is the use of the actual radio announcer from World War II in this movie.  There are actually several arguments, but it is not an ensemble in the American sense, as the pieces fit together rather well, though as can be expected of a jig-saw puzzle, not seamlessly.  The mosaic’s main plot has Germany attacking Leningrad, attempting to bomb it into submission.  Second, is the rebellion by the son of Field Marshall von Leeb, who is afraid Germany is acting in the same way as its enemies are accused of doing.  Third, is the story of the British reporter, which almost becomes a love story, with scenes not appropiate for younger audiences.  Fourth is the search by the  NKGB or NKVD, the secret police, for this journalist, for she is really the daughter of a White Russian emigré, suspected of being a danger to the regime. Fifth, is her survival, abetted by a female officer who showed definite leadership qualities at the beginning of the film, something feminists would probably herald.  In fact, the film seems quite gender-neutral. Sixth, is an attempt by a group from Leningrad to break the blockade, by crossing over the Neva.  A potential bit of irony is tha the German actor portraying von Leeb, Armin Mueller-Stahl, if he wanted to return to the Prussian city of his birth, would now be in Russian territory. This parallels, if weakly, the situation of the emigré’s daughter back in the U.S.S.R.

I think the West could take home the conclusion that the Russian – Ukrainian relationship is not really worse than that between Canada and the U.S. at its worst moments.  The same stock of people, with cases of invasion into the territory of the other, with the last known threat of which I am aware being by an American politician interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a programme by Barbara Frum, where said American believed that if Canada did not keep the price of petroleum exported to the U.S. at pre-OPEC prices, the northern neighbour should be attacked.  And consider this: would the United States have sold oil products to the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbour?  Why, then, is there so much talk about a Russian-Ukraine conflict, when in the midst of this “war”, the two countries came to an agreement on the price of natural gas?  No one empowers their enemies.

Another film involving a German was The Border.  It shows a prison camp, with a personage who gets it into his head to fix up an old locomotive.  While giving it a test run, he gets attacked by a German woman who doesn’t know that the war has ended.  They form a relationship, which is not well-received at the camp, in part, because of her nationality.  But again, their is no anti-German rant comparable to that in Hollywood productions (excepting Hogan’s Heroes).  And the locomotive race scene is priceless!  Probably unequalled anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, due to some scenes, for example, a prisoners washing themselves in a bath-house, this movie would not be suitable except at an A-III or L level.

These are not all the post-Soviet films we have seen. We remember the first one, Taxi Blues (more correctly, a movie of the Perestroika period).  Apparently, the West liked it.  I found it to be without any redeeming value.

The same can be said for the first modern Soviet film I saw in Latin America, perhaps in the time of a supposed anti-Communist dictatorship.  A crime movie, totally boring, incomprehensible.  Some Soviet classics did not suffer from this defect, specifically, the Battleship Potemkin, and the Passing of the Cranes, my preferred translation for The Cranes are Passing, a beautifully-crafted love story set in the time of World War II.

 Conclusion

The selection of Russian movies we have seen may be insufficient for valid conclusions.  However, on the whole, these films are a refreshing change from the barrage of Hollywood fare.  They show “enemies” in a much more human light than the West, as far as we have seen.  Where an enemy has to be shown, it is either historical (e.g., the German or domestic Nazis) or interplanetary or mythical beings.  This helps create a climate of non-discrimination such as cannot be possible in a country which demonizes real countries and groups in its films.

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