Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ambition certainly matches the title of his latest film. It comes at a fitting time, too: although there are no substantial criticisms of Moscow or of Russian foreign policy, Leviathan is infused with a throbbing sense of disillusionment with Russia’s leaders, both central and local.
Some may find it surprising that so much of it was funded by the Russian Ministry for Culture; it has transpired that the Minister isn’t a huge fan of the film. This is hardly surprising: this film exudes a cold fury, trenchantly critical of corrupt local government politics. The local mayor, Vadim, is a boorish wreck; his days are clearly numbered, which only intensifies his pugnacity and abuse of power. The film doesn’t tell us who wins the socio-political war in the end, but it’s clear that the mayor is winning the battles.
The film is tragically human: it’s a small-scale, Chekhovian story contextualised by unknowably large, immovable and often off-screen forces. Kolya, a proud man of modest means, is to have his house bulldozed so the mayor can erect a residence of leisure in its place. Not to be outdone, Kolya calls on his old friend Dmitriy, a lawyer from Moscow – but things grow complicated when Dmitriy begins an affair with Kolya’s wife Lilya. All these events merely exacerbate the couple’s teenage son’s sense of frustration and isolation.
Isolation, geographical and political as well as personal, is a key theme of the film, and is heightened by the chilly widescreen cinematography. An air of fatalism hangs about the film, but events are not simply driven by destiny. Fate here is engineered by humans; it is transmitted through an infrastructure built on lust and greed and wallpapered by apathy and helplessness. The situation faced by small landowners who have often built their homes themselves, only to see it demolished by a leviathan, is absurd.
Zvyagintsev makes good use of the leviathan motif: knowing that the film vaguely concerns the tension between man and state, one immediately thinks of Hobbes’s famous treatise, and its argument that some individual liberties must be sacrificed for the sake of a secure, stable state. Halfway through the film, we do see a leviathan (in this case, some sort of whale) surfacing briefly from underwater; it’s a hopeful image, outweighed narratively and symbolically by the huge cetacean skeleton that dominates the landscape of one of the silted bays. In this country, at this time, decay trumps life. Naturally, this decay affects the ‘little man’ for whom the Russian Revolution of nearly a century ago was fought; but there is a greater decay, a moral decay that grows like a dank mould to weaken the structure of family and country.
Meanwhile, the ties between state and church are being strengthened – as advised in Hobbes’s Leviathan. Zvyagintsev seems to think this state-church connection is particularly important: Vadim and the local bishop meet near the beginning, middle and end of the film, framing and obliquely commenting on the events. Religion, it seems, has become (or remains) venal: Vadim’s allegiance to God is reflected through “charitable patronage”, and, naturally, the bishop himself seems far from godly.
Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography is stunning. We are immersed in a coastal dwelling built on cliffs that are steadily being eroded by endless tidal forces – a literal erosion whose figurative counterpart is at the film’s centre. The expansion of power from political centres is truly relentless. Vadim, despite being something of a caricature, plays a credible role in events: bullishness and bellicosity seem almost necessary in a world in which the powerful can bend the rules, push against the law and physically threaten citizens to get what they want.
In this sense, the film is depressing. But Leviathan is elevated by the beautifully redemptive character of Kolya, played with grit and nuance by Aleksei Serebryakov, one of Russia’s most popular actors. Kolya’s flaws and strengths are believable and human. It is the film’s believability, and its humanity, that make it so devastating.