It started as an American tragedy and it ended as a Russian film. Marvin John Heemeyer, who ran a muffler repair shop in Granby, Colorado (population: 1864) had been in a long-running battle with city officials over a zoning dispute.
One morning in June 2004, he climbed into a bulldozer (he'd armoured its cab with steel and concrete) and proceeded to demolish the town hall, the former mayor's house and a bunch of other municipal buildings before shooting himself.
The story of an individual driven to desperation by state power caught the attention of Russian film-maker Andrey Zvyagintsev. The writer-director's masterful 2003 debut, a brooding, quasi-Biblical family drama called The Return won the supreme award, the Golden Lion, in Venice, and sparked comparisons to his countryman Andrei Tarkovsky.
The next two, The Banishment and Elena, made less of an impression, but the new film, Leviathan, is a magnificent return to form, a potent and intense drama that launches a searing attack on the entrenched power structures in modern Russia.
Leviathan concerns a zoning dispute too, though no Heemeyer equivalent is at the controls of the heavy machinery that features it its climax. In a small fishing village near the Finnish border, the local motor mechanic faces the compulsory acquisition of his family-owned land by a greedy mayor, assisted by a compliant bureaucracy and judiciary. He seeks the help of an army buddy, now a hotshot Moscow lawyer, who arrives with a dossier of dirt on the corrupt politician. But this is no Hollywood story of an individual's triumph against the forces of darkness; things go from bad to worse, slowly but comprehensively.
The portrait that emerges of contemporary Russia, ruled by a corrupt elite, abetted by the police, the courts and the church, is precisely pointed: the mayor has a portrait of Vladimir Putin on the wall; an Orthodox bishop, who is equal parts father confessor and godfather to the politician, is allowed to proclaim that the church is "reawakening the soul of the Russian people" even as he connives at their impoverishment; the judge and police chief meet, and take instruction from, the mayor.
Russian authorities, unsurprisingly, detested it. Yet when the film won the best screenplay award at Cannes, Zvyagintsev told reporters that it was not his intention to confront power.
It's a assertion reiterated by the film's producer Alexander Rodnyansky, who stands in for the non-English-speaking Zvyagintsev in most interviews. Speaking on a dodgy cellphone connection from the middle of a Moscow traffic jam, he says that Leviathan, for all its specificity of time and place, is a universal story.
"Andrey is an artist of great integrity," he says. "He makes films about the human condition. There are a lot of elements in this film: the book of Job in the Old Testament; Thomas Hobbes' [treatise on statecraft] which is where the film gets its title; and of course the Colorado story, which was where it started.
"It is a common experience: the individual versus the leviathan. I remember a Mexican man who told me after a screening that if you changed the vodka for tequila and the snow for heat, you would have a Mexican story.
"An Italian lady said, if it were not Russian Orthodox Church but Catholic Church, it would be a story about Italy."
It's an understandable stance for the filmmakers to adopt in a country so hostile to political dissent. When the film screened at Cannes, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, it attracted whispers that it was an American-inspired anti-Putin tract; the church, so active in the jailing of the Pussy Riot singers (who are name-checked in the film) called for its banning.
More chillingly, Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, told Le Monde that art should give people hope.
"All flowers can grow, but we only water the ones we like," he said, in a none-too-oblique reference to the fact that the ministry provided 35 per cent of the budget. (There have been calls for that money to be returned).
Certainly the film sparked a national conversation long before it was released.
Rodnyansky estimates that more than 20 million illegal downloads (from a source that has never been identified) created huge mass word-of-mouth for the film before it opened in Russian cinemas - in versions that discreetly muted the occasional profanity in the soundtrack. Rodnyansky admits that the rampant piracy did nothing for the film's fortunes.
"I won't say I am happy," he says, "because we need people to buy tickets. But all the downloading meant that Russian people saw this movie, discussed it, argued about it. That has to be a good thing."