They will neither thaw the new Cold War nor promote world peace. But Leviathan and Red Army, currently on a slow march through U.S. cinema art houses afford compelling insights into Russia and its people.
At first blush, Red Army appears a gripping sports story. Through abundant film clips and the voice over narration of Vachislav "Slava" Fetisov, Captain of the Red Army Hockey Team, we are drawn through the rise and fall of the world champion Soviet team. Recruited as youngsters, the principals of the team bond through the rigors of training and world class competition. They develop camaraderie that reflects and comes to represent Soviet ideals, both the teamwork of socialism and the rise of Russian power. Deep friendships are forged and championships are won as they become the world's most formidable sports dynasty.
Changes in coaching and concern for skaters weaken morale and performance. The team's decline parallels the fate of the Soviet Union. The brutal methods of replacement coach Viktor Tikhanov, which had at first propelled victory, later drive the players to resentment and ultimately to pursue fame and fortune in the West.
But the flight to fortune is rocky at first. The Soviet stars fail to thrive in the more individualist western sports milieu. Teamwork has been replaced by the cult of the individual hero. Not until Fetisov and friends are able to forge a more Soviet style team play are they able to succeed. The contradictions of the systems are not lost on Fetisov, who, after finally achieving success, western style, opts to return to his roots and try to rebuild the type of system he grew up in.
Leviathan's Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) has no such choice. With little skill and much less luck, Kolya is less than a survivor, caught in a downward spiral of circumstances beyond his influence. The small Russian town's corrupt mayor is trying to use eminent domain to seize Kolya's house to build his own fortune. When Kolya enlists the support of old friend, Moscow lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), the situation deteriorates into conflict among all the principals including his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), his son and officials.
Set against the bleak Russian north landscape, dotted with the decay of industry and settlement, Leviathan is the tale of modern Job in a hostile world. Failed by government, family and friends. Mocked by the hypocrisy of religion. Undermined by his drinking and temperment. Kolya is a decent everyman whose limitations make him ill-suited for the vulture capitalism of even rural Russia.
There are no signs of the teamwork ethos of the Soviet Union. There is no glorification of the working class or social safety net. A calcified bureaucratic judicial system administers New Russia's unforgiving social Darwinism.
Both films have met with high praise. Red Army which was written, produced and directed by Gabe Polsky and produced by Werner Herzog was an official entry at Cannes, Toronto and Telluride and was selected as the Opening Ceremony film of the 2014 Moscow International Film Festival.
After winning a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Leviathan was nominated for the Academy Award for 2014's Best Foreign Film. With this exposure and through this artistry, these films can better help us understand the people of a country which is so often portrayed as our enemy.
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