Written by Oleg Negin and Andrei Zvyagintsev
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
There are three things you don’t discuss at a dinner table: politics, religion, and your unending suffering at the hands of those two beasts. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan manages to bring all three of those into a modern retelling of Job by way of Thomas Hobbes. Taking influence from such classic texts puts Zvyagintsev in the realm of other Russian storytellers known for grand-scale ambitions: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tarkovsky. Luckily, his cultural inheritance is well-utilized — the title implying a mammoth tale from a political beast encapsulates a present-day Russia dominated by systems out of its citizens’ control.
Kolya (Alexei Serebryakov) and his son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev) smack each other at the breakfast table as punishment-turned-friendly-roughhousing. Roma is still getting used to Kolya’s second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) living with them in their seaside home, so he’s a bit unruly and on-edge, hanging and drinking with the wrong crowd at a crumbled church. Kolya hides his true sign of aggression as well: his home is being fought for repossession by the greedy, drunk mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who he fears may be making room for a grand mansion built on his corruption. Kolya has thus hired his big-time city lawyer friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) to sack the mayor’s plight for easy land. However, the butting heads of legal battles and less-than-legal battles cause strife within this community, leading to a dissolution of this nuclear family with Biblical punishment doling itself against the resilient Kolya. He finds himself a victim not of the evils of men, but of the systems they’ve enlisted to accommodate such evils.
“Don’t shit yourself. The state will take care of him,” and “God sees everything, son,” punctuate the atmosphere when uttered by authority figures. The first is darkly humorous: we know that the state taking care of Kolya is reason enough to panic. The second comes in as an Orthodox warning against fighting back, that a Job-like integrity must be maintained. As Kolya loses little pieces of his life thanks to these systems, the patience maintained in the Job story becomes less a message about integrity and more one of powerlessness against one’s environment.
This new message is maintained through the depictions of the cogs of these machines. A legal official reads through statements, legal details, and general bureaucratic nonsense at a monotone, machine-gun pace as if it’s the seventh time she’s read the exact statement that day in a preliminary procedure to throw Kolya’s case away. Her distance from the case at hand, the statement’s failure to recognize any possible objection, and the length to which she recites the statements (twice!) grows to a humorous degree. It’s mechanical and cold with no humans behind the words — Kolya has been damned by the Leviathan, with the only God to turn to carefully protected by a priest tied to the system.
There are spontaneous moments of hope. A humble priest offers brief moments of insight into a too-late-for-comfort drunken Kolya. Dimitri works from within the system and continues an affair with Lilya, but also seems concerned in an altruistic, yet profitable fashion toward his lifelong friend. The citizens are humble, but flawed, constantly in fear of servitude toward a system that is established to protect them. Grand shots of the sea, its rocky neighbor of Russian landscape, rusted boats, and a mythic skeleton bookend and interrupt the film in a gesture of visual rhyming to its themes of an epic, country-wide failure. Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan speaks to what we’ve been hearing about the recent Putin-controlled landscape — of the Ukraine, of annexation, of swinging political power and an out-of-control police force. He strings newsbits together within the imagery of a large beast at sea, of political masterworks, and of Biblical tales in an atheist nation. Though sprawling and sometimes unfocused, his love letter to a withering landscape, fueled by more drinking than a Hong Sang-soo film (OK, maybe not that much), is a brooding reflection on the powers-that-be of his home.
– Zach Lewis