MOSCOW (AP) — It's been lauded by critics yet trashed by Russian politicians, its actors praised for their performances but harassed by local officials.
On Thursday, director Andrei Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated film "Leviathan," a harrowing portrayal of small-town corruption, faces its toughest test yet as it plays in about 450 theaters across Moscow and other Russian cities.
The drama — the most hotly debated film in Russia in decades — has already snagged some of the industry's top awards. It won the best screenplay award at Cannes, got a Golden Globe for the best foreign language film and has been nominated for an Academy Award this year in the same category.
Russian politicians and cultural figures, meanwhile, have been leaping to outdo one another by calling Zvyagintsev Russia's greatest living director, a national traitor, or sometimes both.
The film's release date was delayed for months after Russian authorities said it would have to be edited for local audiences and all of the curse words removed.
Shot in the stunning landscape of Russia's far north, the film tells the story of a mechanic who loses his home to a devious bishop and a vodka-guzzling mayor with a portrait of President Vladimir Putin above his desk. In a country where politicians and residents alike have rallied around Putin in recent months over the crisis in neighboring Ukraine, that imagery has not been well received.
"It's just cursing, more cursing, and vodka," nationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared in a fist-pumping rant. "(Zvyagintsev) did it deliberately, so that we would be disgusted by our own country!"
The criticism has been almost as virulent from Russia's Cultural Ministry, one of the financial backers of the film.
"Films that aren't simply critical of the current government but openly spit on it ... (films that are) filled with the hopelessness and meaningless of our existence should not be financed by the taxpayer," said Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
Valery Grishko, the actor who plays the bishop, was the target of a complaint to the Culture Ministry from civic leaders in his hometown of Samara. They demanded that he be removed from his position as director of a state theater because of his "cynical and dirty parody" of a Russian Orthodox bishop.
The bespectacled, soft-spoken Zvyagintsev grew up in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and spent much of his twenties working as a street cleaner in Moscow while devouring books in his spare time. He has been adamant that his film, his fourth, is not a political critique.
"I am genuinely convinced that it is a totally universal story of a man who confronts a system," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"But because it develops in the context, in the reality, of our Russian life — I simply don't know any other reality — you can say it's a Russian film ... about Russian problems," he said. "But those can easily be extrapolated to any other place in the world, except maybe Antarctica."