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Why a Russian film nominated for an Oscar is stirring angst at home

A man walks past a billboard for "Leviathan" in Moscow. (Getty Images)

MOSCOW — If the accolades it has already racked up are any indicator, then "Leviathan" -- a movie about official corruption, the Orthodox church and the powerlessness of ordinary people against them -- is Russia’s best chance for nabbing an Oscar since the film "Burnt by the Sun" won  in 1994.

But as international critics heap on the honors abroad, "Leviathan" has inspired criticism, derision and even identity crises among its supporters at home.

Government and church officials say the film is Western propaganda, catering to foreigners eager to award anything that presents Russia in a negative light. Some municipalities have reportedly refused to let the film be shown in theaters. And of those who have seen the film -- it was just released in Russia this past weekend -- many confessed deep frustrations with the devastating picture it presents of Russian society; devastating, they say, because it’s true.

As a film that openly criticizes official power, "Leviathan" was never going to go over easy in Russia. But coming at a time when most Russians are rallying around the flag and their president in a show of solidarity against the West, the film is hitting an especially raw nerve.

“We expected to polarize the audience, and society, because we were definitely aware of what kind of film we were doing,” producer Alexander Rodnyansky said in an interview. “But then Ukraine started, and that changed everything.”

Without giving too much away, the plot of "Leviathan" centers on Kolya, a resident of an unnamed, depressed northern fishing town. Over Kolya’s  objections, the mayor wants to take Kolya's house. The mayor is a man with close ties to the leadership of the Orthodox church, powerful connections in various branches of government  and a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his desk -- a reminder that this film is a none-too-subtle representation of modern-day Russia.

“You never had any rights,” the mayor tells Kolya in an early scene. “You never did, you don’t, and you never will.”

Galina Rodyonova, 36, emerged from a Moscow showing of the film Sunday saying she was “a bit shocked.”

“This is the face of our power that they don’t want us to see,” she said. “But this is a true story -- it is possible in our northern regions, and really any region of the country.”

Yelena Ivanova, 32, was also struck by what she called “the harsh truth” of the film.

“It doesn’t show Russia nicely, but it shows the facts,” she said.

Official Russia begs to differ.

Before the film was even released in the country, Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that the movie “consciously repeats commonplace myths about Russia” to cater "to a Western audience.”

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky also told Izvestia that because the film “spit on” the current government and was “filled with hopelessness and the meaninglessness of our existence,” it did not deserve taxpayers' financial support.

Russia’s Culture Ministry actually provided about 15 percent of the funding for the film and is featured as an official sponsor in the opening credits. (Medinsky told Izvestia he isn’t personally involved in funding decisions.)

Producer Rodnyansky said he sought that sponsorship specifically because, even back in 2012, when he was securing that funding, he knew that director Andrey Zvyagintsev was dealing with touchy subjects. When, more than a year later, Russia annexed Crimea, straining Russian-Western relations, the idea of exploring themes that criticized Russian power and society became even more controversial.

“We were expecting a huge discussion on the Russian Orthodox Church and corruption. But at the end of the day, it turned out to be a discussion about the country itself,” Rodnyansky said.

Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian who lives and works in Russia, said he never sought Western backing for the film. And he says it's lucky that "Leviathan" sparked a debate between its supporters and its detractors. If they were starting the project today, he said, it would be much harder to get off the ground.

If the film wins the Oscar later this month, Rodnyansky said, it will “provide some protection for the movie” against those who want to discredit it, or perhaps even silence the discussion it is sparking about internal Russian problems.

For now, Russian theatergoers are just wrestling with the film.

“I didn’t like it a lot,” said Viktor Shemanayev, 33, who saw it twice -- once online before the release, and once in Moscow’s Pioner theater over the weekend. “There was a lot of vodka. No music. It’s very rough.”

There’s a joke going around Russia that you can walk out of your building and have already seen "Leviathan" because the problems it presents are everywhere in the country. That’s also why many viewers found it frustrating that the film offers little hope that things can change -- not even Dostoevsky leaves you feeling so hopeless, Shemanayev said.

“But,” he added, “I think they ought to give it the Oscar.”