Caught in the undertow

‘Leviathan’ evokes Russian literature in a grim tale of corruption

'Leviathan' movie (photo credit: PR)
'Leviathan' movie
(photo credit: PR)
When you first hear about Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a modern-day retelling of the Job story transposed to Russia, you might assume it is one of those ponderous, overlong and overly symbolic films that are annoyingly commonplace on the film festival circuit. But you would be dead wrong.
Leviathan, which won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and is nominated for an Oscar, is singularly gripping and invites comparisons with Russian literature as much as to movies. If Dostoevsky were alive today and were writing screenplays (hard to imagine, I know), he might tell a morality tale like this.
The title refers to the Biblical sea monster, as well as to Thomas Hobbes’s book on the social contract and to an actual whale that washes up on the shores of the fishing village where the film takes place.
Set in the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, the movie focuses on Nikolai (Aleksey Serebryakov), an auto mechanic whose family has owned property on the edge of the sea for generations. His wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), works cleaning fish for a cannery. His son from a previous marriage, Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev), gets into trouble in school and drinks with his friends in the ruins of an abandoned church, but in this kind of family, that’s all pretty much expected.
What is causing trouble is the fact that the mayor (Roman Madyanov) wants to seize Nikolai’s property for development and pay him only a small fraction of what it is worth.
The mayor, who sits underneath a framed photo of Vladimir Putin, is shameless about his plan, as are the local judges who approve any decision he makes. The local priest is happy to serve as the mayor’s henchman.
Nikolai’s only hope is his friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a former colleague of his from the army, who has become a successful lawyer in Moscow.
Dmitriy comes to help and shows the mayor that he intends to fight hard and play dirty, if necessary.
But having an outsider around destabilizes both the conflict with city hall and Nikolai’s family life.
The movie captures a very Russian reality, where the country is slowly devolving back to the feudal system that inspired the Russian Revolution. To survive in this bleak, forbidding atmosphere, everyone drinks – a lot. Think about how you drink water on the hottest summer day, and imagine that those bottles contained vodka instead. I used to work at a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s that was staffed by a large contingent of Australians, and I’ve still never seen anyone drink the way the people do in Leviathan. At one point, Nikolai asks his staggering friend if he’s too drunk to drive. “I’m fine, I’m a traffic cop,” the friend replies.
Many of the characters are policemen, and they’re always armed. In one of the film’s darkly funny scenes, Nikolai and Lilya go out for a day of shooting and drinking with some policemen friends and their wives, and use framed photos of famous Russian leaders – Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and others – for target practice.
There has been some discussion in the media of the fact that this movie savagely criticizes the Russian government but was chosen by Russia as its official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Zyvagintsev, whose best-known film up till now was the psychological thriller The Return, said in a press conference at the Haifa International Film Festival in October that he is comfortable representing Russia. Although this art-house film, with its carefully photographed landscapes and its 140-minute running time, is unlikely to be a huge popular hit in Russia (or anywhere, for that matter), I think it is possible that the Putin government is trying to deflect its impact by adopting it.
And while it is very much a Russian film, the saga of entrenched corruption will have resonance all over the world, not least in Israel where the highest public officials have been embroiled in scandal.
The acting is excellent, and the gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography may give you a perverse desire to visit this region.
Zvyagintsev has created a very particular portrait of a man victimized by corruption to tell a moving story that will speak to audiences everywhere.