Written by Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
In American cinema, there is a tradition of the plucky underdog who has all the odds stacked against him and still manages to come out on top. There is no such archetype in Russian films where the idea of a lone figure having the ability to overcome the bureaucratic power is laughable. Inspired by the bulldozer rampage of Marvin Heemeyer of Colorado, director Andrey Zvyagintsev reimagines that story through a Russian lens of powerlessness. Leviathan is such a searing pointed portrayal of modern Russia and its ugliness that Zvyagintsev, who had received government funds to help finance this film, caused the Ministry of Culture to rewrite their conditions on how a movie gets their support. Films must not “defile” the Russian culture, which is another way of saying they must support the party line and be propaganda.
Kolya is having his land seized from him by the city of Pribrezhny which had led him to call in Dima, a lawyer friend who lives in Moscow. Dima promises he will take down the corrupt mayor and assures Kolya he will keep his land. The lawyer has gathered dirty on the mayor via associates in Moscow and presents the pompous leader with a folder of his findings. Kolya, an uncontrollable hothead, ends up in jail for a day and during that time Dima and Lilya, Kolya’s wife, end up in bed together. The once hopeful ending where Kolya keeps his family’s land and the bureaucrats are defeated looks further and further away.
Last year I read The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen where the author provides a very comprehensive look at the contemporary Russian mind and psychology. One of the critical elements of modern Russia, and pretty much the majority of the nation’s history, is a sense of isolationism. Despite the promise of a cooperative society, the Russian Revolution brought no such thing, and the era of Putin has furthered those gaps in communities. Any efforts to organize in opposition to power from a small local level to a national one is met with severe pushback from authorities, as they have learned from history and will do everything they can to keep their power. Institutions, like the government and the Orthodox Church, are propped up as guiding lights in uncertainty and end up providing little comfort to any citizens.
Zvyagintsev presents us with the modern day Russia Job in Kolya, a man who will be so thoroughly ground into the dirt by the end of the picture but with no redemption that the character found in the Bible. This is an atheist world where God is neither responsible for Kolya’s suffering yet also not going to be there to save him in the third act. Kolya and everyone around him are on a slow march into oblivion. His wife, Lilya, seems the most aware and sensitive to the brokenness of their life. After her affair with Dima and subsequent revelation, Kolya tries to be very forgiving. However, Lilya knows there is a world with more hope beyond the boundaries of their small city. We see the Leviathan of the title, a blue whale, breaching the waters as Lilya looks longingly out across them. Later, we see another whale, this one a skeleton stripped down to the bone and beached in an inlet. Lilya knows she will be that once free creature left lifeless.
Characters consume vast amounts of vodka over the course of the film, one of only a few methods they have to cope with their existence. The other is to explode into an impotent rage which ends up, in Kolya’s case, getting him jailed and his formal complaint about the mayor tossed in the trash. The mayor consults with the town’s priest regularly, seeking moral guidance. Then he utilizes mob tactics to silence those who oppose him. In the most ironic of scenes, as the mayor and his family attend church, he leans down and tells his son, “This is our Lord, son. He sees everything.” The message being communicated here is that if there is a God, what kind of a god is he to sit by and watch someone like the mayor brutalize his citizens? It is no coincidence that images of the church and pictures of the Russian authority are intermingled throughout the film. The Russian God is a fearsome and cruel one.