By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Andrey Zvyagintsev, the director of the Oscar-nominated, Kremlin-rankling corruption drama "Leviathan," pauses, looks at his producer and wryly smiles.
"Should I tell the truth?" the 51-year-old asks.
"No, go ahead and lie," Alexander Rodnyansky replies with a sarcastic chuckle.
"Leviathan" tells the tragic tale of middle-aged auto mechanic Kolya, whose life crumbles after he challenges a corrupt mayor over the seizure of his waterfront house and business. It has earned universal praise abroad but has divided home audiences.
The movie, which has been attacked by Russian officials as high as the culture minister for its bleak portrayal of everyday life and the coarse language of its vodka-chugging characters, is considered a front runner for the best foreign language picture Oscar after winning a Golden Globe last month.
"I have to say that the success the film has seen in Europe, India, the United Arab Emirates and the United States has for some reason strangely irritated people living in Russia," the slight, bespectacled director told Reuters in an interview.
"I don't know why, but it's a fact that's pointless to argue."
"Leviathan" has also been criticized for its portrayal of the Russian Orthodox Church, which it shows encouraging the ruthless mayor's resolve in targeting Kolya with the aid of police and courts.
"The film's reception abroad proves its universality - it is understood everywhere," Zvyagintsev said. "It evokes compassion for a person who finds himself in the grips of injustice and tries to maintain a sense of dignity."
Shot on the Barents Sea near Russia's northern border with Norway, "Leviathan" showcases the Arctic's raw beauty as a counterpoint to Kolya's despair as his livelihood and family disintegrate.
The erratic mayor, whose office is dominated by a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led many outside of the country to consider the film a satire, a notion the director admits he did not intend.
"I see it more as a tragic comedy," he said.
"Satire is something you can only see from the outside ... When you're on the inside - when you live it - it's something else entirely."
Despite attacks from the local government where the film was shot, Zvyagintsev said residents who saw an early screening gave it their approval.
"The locals in the area spoke of the fact that this film is absolute truth," Zvyagintsev said.
The villagers responded: "Life is even harder," the director said.
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey, editing by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Lambert)