Leviathan (2014)

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth film is a scathing take on religion and politics in modern-day Russia.


Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev

Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 140 minutes

Original title: Левиафан
Transliterated title:

Towards the end of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the long-suffering main character, Nikolai, meets an old priest in the grocery store of the small town in far northeastern Russia where the story takes place. Nikolai, or Kolya, the nickname by which almost everyone calls him, has faced hardships the past year that no hardworking man should have to deal with, and perhaps predictably the priest quotes Scripture, from the Book of Job: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?”

The quotation doesn’t help Kolya all that much (the priest also basically encourages him to grin and bear it), but at least we have the beginning of an explanation for the title, which refers to the giant sea monster God allegedly slayed. However, Zvyagintsev’s view of present-day Russian society is very bleak, and it would seem this time Leviathan is a monster even God himself is unable to tame, much less destroy.

The film is a devastating indictment not only of the rotten core of the country’s authorities, including the police, the judicial and the political systems, but also of the role of the Orthodox Church in the business of the state. Just as Jesus looks down from his cross on the congregation during a service, so, too, does Putin’s portrait (albeit a much younger version of the man) in the office of the town’s mayor, Vadim. Vadim’s deeds, however, read like “a horror story”, according to Kolya’s brother, Dmitri, a Moscovite lawyer who has come to help him fight the system.

What makes Leviathan such a daring work of art is that the director doesn’t shy away from taking on a handful of evil foes that one would assume can get him in trouble with the authorities. After all, the infamous Pussy Riot incident (and the subsequent penalties imposed on those who publicly criticise the regime), not long before the film’s release, made the power of the Church in Russian politics inescapably clear to the world.

The plot is mainly about the town’s decision to take prime land next to the sea, where Kolya has lived for many years, in a move that would be described as eminent domain, except there is no clear reason why the town would have to do this, save perhaps its sublime location. The case has ended up in the courts, because Kolya refused to accept the puny sum of money offered to him by the town (a slap in the face, considering the size of the house and the effort he has put into it over the years), and in a breathtaking scene, the court’s judge dismisses all Kolya’s objections with a slew of legalese, siding with the town. We later see the judge and her assistants taking notes from the mayor, who assures them that their continued cooperation would mean they will be re-appointed to the bench come the next election.

This scene in the courtroom – shot almost entirely in a single take, during which the camera slowly zooms in on the judge’s face as she reads out, at the pace of a machine gun going off, the history of the case and the complete rejection of Kolya’s claims – is simply amazing. It is subtly paralleled with a later scene in the Orthodox Church, in which the priest speaks at a similar tempo for a comparable amount of time.

But the film’s most pointed criticism of the state comes during a vodka-soaked hunting trip. When the man celebrating his birthday has had enough of shooting bottles, he suggests making things more interesting, and he brings portraits of former Soviet leaders to place as the target. We see Brezhnev and Lenin and Gorbachev. But then one of those in attendance slyly asks, “And do you have anyone more recent?” Of course, the audience knows exactly whom he has in mind.

This kind of lèse-majesté, which delicately suggests Putin should be shot, or at least that he is as flawed as previous Soviet leaders, may seem entirely appropriate to a Western audience, but Zvyagintsev has to know he is walking a very fine line here between art and resistance, which Putin is not exactly known for tolerating.

Leviathan flows inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, the plot more rich and lively than we would expect from a Zvyagintsev movie. The pace is less contemplative than we are used to in his films, except for the continual reminders of the waters rhythmically and unstoppably breaking on the shore. Philip Glass’s expressive “Akhnaten”, which bookends the film, resonates with us the moment it starts and proves to be a powerful way of suggesting the almost operatically tragic aspect of the events we see unfolding. At the same time, however, the church is never far from implicated, and a brief shot of a painting on the wall of an old church, showing the head of John the Baptist on a plate, reminds us that things will not necessarily turn out well for those who live a righteous life.

In his most powerful film to date, Zvyagintsev uses the confluence of religion and politics to make a statement about the endemic corruption and the far-reaching tentacles of those in power, portrayed with his always exquisite eye for stunning imagery. This is one to see.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

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