After picking up a Golden Globe (Russia’s first since 1969) and garnering a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last month, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan saw a spike in attention, not all of it positive. Pro-Kremlin figures have denounced the film as “anti-Russian”, and Russia’s Minister of Culture (whose ministry partially funded the film) criticized Zvyagintsev and suggested that he make pieces with less “existential despair”. It’s easy to see why the cardinals of the Kremlin are unhappy, because Leviathan is thinly veiled political commentary on Putin’s state.
Set in a town next to the Barents Sea, the story centers around a man named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), whose house is about to be unfairly seized by a corrupt mayor named Vadim (Roman Madyanov). The house is everything to Kolya, who lives there with his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova). Accordingly, he has enlisted the help of his old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a high-flying lawyer in Moscow, to obtain reasonable compensation for the house’s impending seizure. When court appeals and other petitions fail, Dmitri resorts to blackmail: he digs up dirt on the mayor and threatens that, unless Kolya is given proper recompense, he will release it for all to see. Here we have all the incipient trappings of a classic David v. Goliath tale—but wait, where’s the existential despair?
Let’s just say that things don’t go well for our scrappy heroes, who also start appearing significantly less heroic as the film progresses (OK, blackmail isn’t very lionhearted to start with either, I know). “Existential despair” is spot-on when it comes to Leviathan: it’s a very, very, very depressing movie. Previously, when I reviewed Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003), I mentioned how “we here in the West oftentimes see Russia as a miserable place.” While The Return uses that misery as backdrop, it’s front and center in Leviathan—I feel that the movie’s main intent is to show just how dark of a place Russia is, and that’s what riles the Kremlin’s allies.
I’ll give those Kremlinites credit for saying that Leviathan depicts Russians as a bunch of sad drunks living in a dump, because that’s exactly what it does. Every few minutes another bottle of vodka is liberated of liquid; even the kids are drinking beer atop the ruins of a church (how’s that for social commentary). Alcohol fuels one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, which occurs when Kolya and some of his “friends” (the quotation marks are intentional) have a birthday barbecue. As kebabs roast on the grill, the men decide to have a drunken shooting contest. First they start with empty glass bottles: whoever hits one drinks a shot, whoever misses drinks three. This does not last long, as one of the gang brings his AK-47 and blasts all the bottles away in one semi-automatic swoop. The shooting persists though, as someone has brought a few slightly more eye-raising items for next round’s targets: portraits of former Soviet leaders.
“Got anyone more current?” Kolya asks when they’re revealed.
“I’ve got a bunch of stuff, but it’s too early for the current ones. Not enough historical perspective,” his friend answers.
“Why the fuck did I fund this thing?!?” I’d like to imagine the Russian Minister of Culture screaming in response.
Simply put, Leviathan spares no expense when it comes to skewering contemporary Russia. Its commentary is subtle, but powerful and at times so dark that it becomes hilarious. The villainous Mayor Vadim is a fat drunk, the traffic cops drive drunk because they won’t be ticketing themselves, and the institutions of justice and law are unjust and kleptocratic characters in a Kafkaesque horror story. The existence of such political commentary distinguishes Leviathan from Zvyagintsev’s other films. In my review of The Return, I implied that we shouldn’t let the perception of Russia as “the austere authoritarian other to our delightful democratic self, a home to alcoholism, gulag archipelagos, and notes from the underground” distract us. I’d reverse the prescription here.
However, politics aside, Leviathan fits snugly within Zvyagintsev’s overall style; we need not emphasize its darkness and bleakness more on this front. While Leviathan is not as much of “a mythological look on human life” as The Return, it is still highly philosophical. As with other Zvyagintsev films, religious imagery and Biblical themes weigh heavily throughout. The name “Leviathan” itself comes from the Old Testament (I’d assume it’s also a nod to Hobbes), and the story of Job provides a religious lens into some of the film’s main questions: why does evil exist, and why do horrible things happen to righteous people? Concepts of faith, justice, truth, and power regularly arise in characters’ conversations, intermingling to create more questions but no answers. Is faith in justice a lie when the only truth is power? Can the power of faith create true justice?
Compared to The Return, I’d say Leviathan is indisputably a better piece—my personal preferences lean more towards political allegory, and my sense of humor clicks with the subtle black ironies the movie (intentionally or not) contains. When there’s a funny portrait of Putin staring down at a corpulent corrupt official, you bet I’ll enjoy the scene, and probably the entire movie around it. Political commentary strengthens and broadens Leviathan‘s appeal. While Andrey Zvyagintsev’s other movies may be more like one-off art house pieces, Leviathan has more staying power, especially given all the recent political hubbub with Russia. There’s something special in seeing a state in which “nothing is true and everything is possible” designate a film that broaches truth and possibility as its official Oscar candidate. If Leviathan wins later this month, I’d love to see the look on the Russian Minister of Culture’s face.
Leviathan (Russian: Левиафан)—Russia. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. First released May 2014. Running time 2hr 21min. Starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, and Roman Madyanov.