Set in a fictional coastal town in Russia’s north west, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated Leviathan (Leviafan or Левиафан in Russian) is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film that can easily be read as an indictment of the country’s authorities, in particular local government, the justice system and the Orthodox Church, all of which are depicted as corrupt or complicit with corruption. It is also a film that concerns itself with even weightier issues and even stronger manipulative forces: namely the will of God, and the fate that befalls those who act in opposition to it, or who question it. The title references a line, delivered here by a pious priest, from the Book of Job: ‘Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?’ asks the holy man, indicating the greatness of the force at work, and the main protagonist here is forced to endure all kinds of suffering, similar to his biblical counterpart. Zvyagintsev’s film is concerned with a character’s inability to control his own fate, and who has little choice but to succumb to his destiny in the face of mounting problems and life-changing events, much of which he cannot influence in a meaningful way.
The man in question is a hot-headed car mechanic named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who believes he is in a battle with a single figure – crooked mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) – over a compulsory purchase order. In a way, he is, and it turns into a very personal duel between the two, played out in the courts but also face-to-face on one occasion, when a drunken Vadim turns up on Kolya’s doorstep with a couple of burly goons in tow. The Mayor’s publicly-stated intention is to buy and then demolish Kolya’s house – in a prime spot next to a river but standing apart from the rest of the town – in order to build a telecommunications mast that will benefit the community as a whole. However Kolya suspects Vadim has an ulterior motive, and believes the Mayor is going to build a mansion for himself on the plot as soon as possible. Kolya and unhappy wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) have thus decided to fight the purchase in the regional administrative courts, enlisting the help of Kolya’s old army friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a Moscow-based lawyer.
However there’s more than just the will of a crooked mayor driving the demolition plan forward, and though Kolya’s resistance is symbolic of his own stubbornness and pride, the house purchase becomes one problem among many and his insistence on focusing solely upon it means that he takes his eye off other pressing matters. Locals take advantage of his generosity as a mechanic. He is defeated in the courts, and we later discover that at least one senior judge is influenced by Vadim, who conducts his nefarious business while sitting underneath an unsubtly-placed portrait of Vladimir Putin. When Dima attempts to blackmail the Mayor with some incriminating information he has dug-up in Moscow, the situation escalates into one of intimidation and thuggery. Meanwhile Kolya’s second wife Lilya’s spirits are low, partly because of the way she is treated by Kolya’s rebellious teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev), and as the film progresses it seems as if she has no way of escape from her unhappiness; additionally her actions inadvertently heap even more misery on her husband, leading him to drink. In fact a series of decisions by other characters, as well as some made by Kolya himself, hurry along the quadruple whammy of betrayal, defeat, loss and imprisonment, and thus Leviathan gradually reveals itself as a heavy-duty, depressing tale, filmed largely under grey, rain-filled clouds, in which there is little hope for anyone.
It is, however, one of the more striking cinematic works of the past couple of years. The opening few minutes alone serve as a showreel for cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, whose shots of Russia’s remote northern coastline are stunning and echoed with increasing melancholy at the end of the film. These montages include a number of wrecked boats that resemble, in their ruined state, another object that lies near Kolya’s house: the giant skeleton of a whale (a further biblical link, as well as being an obvious nod to the title and the specific quoted line from Job). Yet despite these sea-going husks this is not a film that is in thrall to the vast body of water that stretches off to the horizon, despite the importance of the sea to the townspeople (Lilya and her best friend both work in a fish factory, for example). It is a film that is far more concerned with land – both as something that can be owned and also in more general terms as the solid mass that smashes boats and finishes off Earth’s largest creatures – and thus we realise that the oft-mentioned leviathan could well be a metaphor for Russia itself.
Given that his film shows hypocritical Orthodox priests in cahoots with the Mayor, who himself dines with local crime bosses (though Leviathan isn’t really concerned with the ‘traditional’ organised crime of gangsters and the like), Zvyagintsev has come under fire from the Church, as well as Russia’s Ministry of Culture, who coughed up 35 per cent of the budget. The Ministry specifically objected to the portrayal of ordinary Russians as swearing, vodka-swilling rabble-rousers, and argued that there isn’t a single (completely) positive character in the film. This isn’t actually true: the priest who utters the film’s crucial line, and who most obviously ties the story to The Bible, is a small-but-crucial part in Leviathan, and it’s telling that one completely sympathetic character is included, even if his words are not welcomed by Kolya: the priest’s single scene ensures we see something approaching a balanced view of the Church, with a simple charitable act representing an acknowledgment by the writer-director that the Church’s work in rural communities such as this can be vital, and good. Metropolitan Simon of Murmansk and Monchegorsk, the diocese where Leviathan was filmed, subsequently issued a statement calling it ‘honest’, and said that the film raised important questions about the state of the country. Unfortunately The Ministry of Culture has not followed the Metropolitan’s lead, and has since proposed guidelines which would ban movies that ‘defile’ the national culture, an unnecessarily draconian step that does not bode well for Russian cinema.
Such a reaction is patently ridiculous, though perhaps indicative of the current political climate in the country. One hopes that Andrey Zvyagintsev is able to continue making films in his homeland as, on this evidence, he is a talent and may one day be taking his place in the pantheon of great Russian directors. His latest film has a resigned weariness, much like the residents of the weather-battered town depicted, but it is also exquisitely shot, evenly-paced and well-acted by the ensemble cast. If anyone stands out it is Serebryakov as the put-upon protagonist, delivering a credible descent from (seemingly) happily-married father of one to a man who effectively loses everything and is powerless to stop it from happening. One of Leviathan‘s great tricks is to leave you wondering whether Kolya deserves his fate: not because it has been pre-ordained by a divine force, but because it is a punishment for his actions here towards Lilya, whether those are seen or implied or merely possible. It is a question that will linger in the mind of anyone that watches this film, once the quietly-arresting finale fades from the screen and the portentous strings of Akhnaten by Philip Glass begin.
Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin.
Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Sergey Pokhodyaev.
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman.
Editing: Anna Mass.
Music: Philip Glass.
Running Time: 141 minutes.