Leviathan won best screenplay at Cannes and was the Russian nominee in 2014 for best foreign language film at the Oscars. At the same time, the Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky denounced its portrayal of small town corruption as unreal and unrepresentative of the "real Russia".
Medinsky brought in new rules that would ban any movie that "defiles" the national culture.
Leviathan has since been widely acclaimed outside Russia as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. Loveless is Zvyagintsev's first film since the controversy and it is no less savage in its quiet way, but Commissar Medinsky might like this one more.
It shows rich Russians living a privileged life in the capital, people with good jobs working in modern companies and beautiful girls flirting with men in top-notch restaurants. One could say it shows Moscow as a cosmopolitan western European city, only colder.
And none of that would describe the film's bleak depiction of the moral collapse of a society, told through the intimate story of a missing child. Nothing is made explicit, but the decay is palpable.
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) can't bear the sight of each other. She is young and pretty but vapid; he is successful, but remote and cold.
The marriage has made them both mean. Late at night in their comfortable apartment, 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) cowers in his bed, listening to them fight.
Neither wants to take him after the flat is sold. Then the boy is gone. We see him heading off to school but he never arrives. The parents are so self-absorbed they don't notice for 36 hours.
A search begins. The police are undermanned. Most runaways come back, says a senior officer, but if you want results, try this private group: they help find missing kids. A group of volunteers swings into action.
Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin use this story as a way of penetrating the new social strata. They range widely across contemporary settings, from the restaurants where the super-rich dine, to the shells of old Soviet-era buildings now in tatters, to the gleaming new apartment buildings and modern work places with designer furniture where new money sloshes around.
The couple go to visit her mother, who lives four hours out of Moscow, thinking the boy might have gone there. The old woman, half mad and nostalgic, berates her daughter as a whore, whining about the old days.
Zvyagintsev's style is direct and poised, without artifice. His direction, particularly of actors, is always concrete.
Every character, no matter how small, is vivid and real. The sense that this is all happening now, before our eyes, is gripping.
At the same time he brings a poetic edge to his imagery that jangles the senses. Locations are important in his films; they contain meaning and a sense of history.
He also uses the weather here as a kind of implacable threat: when snow begins to fall, the searchers look at each other grimly. The Moscow winter means the boy's chances of survival are even worse.
It's a kind of thriller, but without easy resolution. Zvyagintsev does not deal in reassurance: there is none to be had in this cold, hard place.
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