Leviathan, the latest film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, opens with waves beating upon a barren shore where rocks as old as the earth face an implacable, slate-grey sea.
Tracking inland across barren wastes to an insistent Phillip Glass score, the camera encounters signs of human imprint on this unforgiving landscape: power lines, the hulks of wrecked and abandoned boats, a settlement of worn clap-board houses.
Here an old wooden house stands on a bluff overlooking the bleak shore. In the grey light of dawn, a window lights up and a man emerges. This is Nikolai whose family has lived in this house for generations. Now his world is falling apart: despite enlisting the services of a lawyer from Moscow to resist plans by the local mayor to seize his property for redevelopment, he must move out, along with his wife, Lilya and teen-age son, Roma.
Leviathan is the story of an individual who tries, and fails, to resist the might of a monstrous state, personified in the portrait of Putin that we glimpse on the wall of the mayor’s office. Oddly, perhaps, the film was made, as the opening credits tell us, with support from the Russian Ministry of Culture. In the past year it has accumulated several awards, including winning best screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. I have just caught up with it on DVD.
Although Zvyagintsev insists that the ideas at the heart of his film ‘are relevant everywhere’, he admits that ‘of course it’s a film about Russia. It’s a very Russian film.’ The setting is the edge of the Kola Peninsula, in north-western Russia (nearest town – Murmansk) where the land runs out, leaving nothing but the vast wastes of the Barents Sea. Literally the edge of the world. (By curious coincidence, we’ve recently been watching Fortitude, the thriller commissioned by Sky Atlantic that is set in another frozen landscape of the far north – the island of Svalbard that lies in the far north of the Barents Sea.)
The title of Zvyagintsev ‘s film might refer to the whales that inhabit the Barents Sea, or to their great skeletons, one of which Kolya’s son ponders on the local beach. It most probably refers also (as it does in Thomas Hobbes’s book of the same name) to the monstrous forces of government against which men like Kolya struggle fruitlessly. While the town’s Orthodox priest, in whom Kolya seeks guidance, offers him the solace of Job and his stoical resignation: ‘man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.’
The film certainly evokes Hobbes’ notion of freedom surrendered by people for the apparent security of an authoritarian regime, and Kolya endures trial and tribulation, losing everything (whereas God rewards Job’s loyalty during his travails by restoring his health and doubling his original wealth). But these references are subtly placed in a film that in some ways is reminiscent of one by Ken Loach, both in its unsparing observation of class differences, corruption, and men whose brutish lives revolve around hard labour and drink.
Aleksei Serebryakov plays Kolya, a rugged car mechanic whose land is coveted by the local mayor, an obese, vodka-swilling thug who, Kolya suspects, wants to build a luxury mansion on the spot (he’s wrong; it’s something even more insidious). Using his influence with the local police and courts, the mayor has secured an eviction order and a pitifully small compensation payout. The film opens with the a Kafkaesque ritual of Kolya’s appeal being overruled and the judge reading her lengthy verdict in a mindless rapid monotone.
The intertwining of politics and religion is a central theme in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev pointedly positions Vadim, the corrupt mayor, in the national hierarchy headed by Putin (whose portrait looms over Vadim’s office) whilst hinting that not much has changed since the days of Communism as the camera lingers on a statue of Lenin that still stands in front of the courthouse. At the same time, Vadim and his strongmen are bolstered by the mutually beneficial support of the Russian Orthodox Church. To underline the point, in one scene we catch a glimpse of Pussy Riot on a TV flickering in the corner of a room.
Taking pot shots at old leaders
But the most indelible memory this film leaves is of the vodka drinking: lots of it. There’s hardly a scene in which someone, or everyone isn’t knocking back the stuff in fearsome quantities, whilst matters are disputed, scores are settled and discontent simmers. The drinking gives rise to the film’s funniest line: ‘Are you O.K. to drive?’ a woman asks her husband. ‘I’m a traffic cop, aren’t I?’ he retorts.
This is the second film of Zvyagintsev’s that I have seen. I vaguely remember his debut feature, The Return, released in 2003, an ominous film about a man who returns to his family after an unexplained absence of twelve years, filling his two teenage sons with confusion and alarm.
Leviathan ends with the sight of a digger destroying Kolya’s house, slicing away at furniture and walls, before the camera makes the same journey of the opening minutes, but now in reverse – from the wasteland of man out to the empty shore where the waves continue to smash against eroded rocks. It’s as if Zvyagintsev is suggesting that everything – from rocks to nation-states – crumbles to dust in the end.
- Leviathan director Andrei Zvyagintsev: ‘Living in Russia is like being in a minefield’ (Guardian interview)
- Leviathan review – a compellingly told, stunningly shot drama (Guardian)
- Review: Roger Ebert.com
- ‘Leviathan’ Review: Modern Russian Mastery on a Grand Scale (Wall St Journal)