In a rocky, unpeopled landscape in the far northwest of Russia, where the Kola Peninsula juts into the Arctic Circle, a small group is celebrating a friend’s birthday by taking drunken potshots at a row of empty bottles. After one of the group machine-guns the bottles away, someone produces a new set of targets: a bundle of portraits of the country’s former leaders. We see framed photographs of Brezhnev, Lenin, Gorbachev (though not Stalin), and hear giggles off-screen. ‘Got anyone more current?’, asks Kolya, the film’s main character. ‘It’s too early for the current ones’, replies Stepanych, a local traffic cop: ‘Not enough of a historical perspective. Let them ripen up on the wall a bit.’ The exchange occurs halfway through Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014), Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth film. An unsparing condemnation of the everyday corruption and brutality of power in provincial Russia, it follows Kolya Sergeev’s attempts to resist eviction from his house on the orders of the local mayor, pitting an isolated individual against a state system geared mainly to protecting its own. There is a deliberate, perhaps tactical, ambiguity in the dialogue about the portraits, which on the one hand avoids putting Russia’s current rulers before the symbolic firing squad; on the other hand, it doesn’t guarantee them immunity: their time will eventually come.

Zvyagintsev is perhaps the most internationally successful of the post-Soviet generation of Russian film directors, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003 for his debut film Vozvrashchenie (The Return), and garlanded ever since with prizes and acclaim at Cannes and other festivals on the global circuit. Yet although his four features to date are marked by a shared aesthetic, a common sensibility and tone, they fall into two contrasting phases that are in other respects so distinct as to seem like the work of different directors. Zvyagintsev has moved from a largely abstract, almost allegorical depiction of the world in The Return and Izgnanie (The Banishment, 2007) to a more concrete engagement with contemporary Russian society in Elena (2011) and Leviathan; after what seemed like attempts to evade post-Soviet realities came a willingness to fix them with a steadier gaze. In its own way, it is a trajectory that encapsulates many of the predicaments of all kinds of creative work after the fall of Communism: a generation of writers, filmmakers, artists were at first overwhelmed by the problem of how to capture or convey the experience of a social world turned upside down—until the outlines of the new system that had taken shape came into focus.

Born in 1964 in Novosibirsk, Zvyagintsev originally aspired to be a stage actor. He studied drama in his native city, graduating from the local theatre academy in 1984, and after Soviet military service—luckily, he was not sent to Afghanistan—he went to Moscow in 1986 to continue his training at the State Institute of Theatrical Arts (gitis). He completed the course in 1990, but soon enough, in the wake of the ussr’s collapse, found work of any kind hard to come by. For a time he was employed as a janitor, since this at least provided him with free accommodation; scraps of income came from small acting roles or making advertisements for tv. It was during these hard years that Zvyagintsev acquired his film education: he had started going to screenings at the Museum of Cinema when it opened in 1989, and in the early 1990s by his own account often went to two or three films a day. The programme provided an international curriculum: as well as Soviet masterpieces, there were retrospectives of the work of Godard, Bresson, Kurosawa, Bergman. But the film that made the greatest impression was Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which he described as having ‘infected’ him; ‘my life changed completely’, he said in one interview, elsewhere declaring that ‘at that point I understood that cinema possesses . . . a unique, synthetic narrative language.’footnote1

Zvyagintsev’s filmmaking career is striking in several respects. One is that it did not follow the institutional track taken by many other Soviet and post-Soviet directors, who were formed at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (vgik). Established in 1919, the Institute once counted Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin among its teaching staff, and its alumni include directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Kira Muratova and Aleksandr Sokurov, as well as a slew of prominent actors. Zvyagintsev, on the other hand, served his technical apprenticeship in the world of commercial television, making advertisements for clients including ren-tv, an independent station that started broadcasting in 1997. His directing career began quite by chance: in 2000, the channel’s co-owner, Dmitri Lesnevskii, asked him to make three episodes of a crime series; in a further stroke of luck, it was Zvyagintsev whom Lesnevskii approached in 2001 when he made the leap to producing feature films, handing him the script of what would become The Return.footnote2

The central drama of the film is the sudden return of a long-absent father into the lives of two boys. It is unclear where he has been all these years—was he a prisoner, or maybe a pilot?—and he provides no explanations, a brooding presence whose few words are harsh and disciplining. He takes the boys on what they think is a fishing trip to a remote island, but he clearly has some other purpose in mind (once they arrive at their destination, we see him dig up a small, heavy chest, though its contents remain a mystery). Ivan, the younger son, rejects this intruding authority figure through a series of surly, small-scale rebellions, while his teenage brother Andrei falls eagerly into line, in thrall to the model of masculinity that has now appeared in his life. The threat of violence constantly emanates from the father, and after several days of rising tensions, a confrontation brings both brothers together against him; in the confusion, Ivan runs away, and the father gives chase—his tone now suddenly, desperately consoling—before falling to his death from the top of a tower; as Oedipal a demise as one could have wished for.

The symbolism of the film is, indeed, rather heavy-handed: it takes place over a Biblical seven-day period, and in the father’s first appearance, he is asleep in bed, his foreshortened body seen from the same angle as Mantegna’s dead Christ. These religious resonances seem designed to add weight to the more standard-issue parable of generational succession that the film contains, and which have long been a staple of Soviet and many other cinemas; father-killing, of course, having an obvious political valence in the post-Communist context. It’s perhaps telling that The Return tries to avoid such specificity: it takes place in a filmic world deliberately shorn of obvious chronological markers, in some ahistorical realm which lacks the obvious iconography of the ussr, but which is not the turbulent Russia of the 1990s either. The landscape, however, is identifiably the Russian northwest—The Return was filmed on and around Lake Ladoga—with its calm waters and thick, low forests stretching to the horizon. The film laid down an early marker of Zvyagintsev’s style in its handling of the natural world: water, trees, rain, thunder are all prominently deployed as metaphors for the moral forces at work in the central drama, but they also assert an immediate, immovable physicality that overshadows the ephemeral human presences. In his subsequent films, especially The Banishment and Leviathan, the environment is similarly a foreboding power that dwarfs human agency—often viewed from a distance, in long, static, beautifully composed shots.

Zvyagintsev has worked with the same cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, since his tv directing debut in 2000, which has helped him to maintain a consistent visual signature. When The Return was released in 2003, critics often drew comparisons with Tarkovsky, and there are certainly plenty of conscious echoes: from the thematic interest in childhood to the curtain of rain falling on the boys and their father as they make their way to the island, which recalls Andrei Rublev (1966); the uncannily empty landscape and the father’s secretive quest are redolent of the journey into the ‘Zone’ in Stalker (1979), and so on. The two directors also seem to share a certain metaphysical orientation, though in the case of Zvyagintsev’s first two films, this might appear to be somewhat more literal-mindedly theistic than Tarkovsky’s: he once described The Return as ‘a model for the relationship between man and God’, and the two boys as ‘human beings each going through a different experience of a compulsory initiation rite’.footnote3 As we will see, such spiritual mumblings grew more insistent in Zvyagintsev’s next film. But it’s worth bearing in mind that even here, the real focus of his interest is not the ineffable mysteries of being, but the earthly dilemmas of moral action. In that sense, the concerns of his first two films might better be described as existential. In 2007, he spoke of his admiration for the way Bresson refuses ‘speculative means’ of acting upon a viewer’s emotions: ‘he ruthlessly washes away any human component . . . leaving only a model of behaviour, a model of what a character does, and not what he feels.’footnote4 A sense of emotional containment, of sentiments unexpressed or watchfully held in check—leaving the stage clear for fateful actions—is partly what imbues The Return and The Banishment with their consistent psychological tension.