LEVIATHAN. Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladmir Vdovichenkov, and Roman Madyanov. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, sexual references, nudity and violence). 141 min.
This Russian drama, set in the coastal town of Pribrezhny in Northern Russia, tells the story of Kolya, his wife, Lilya, and Romka, his son from another marriage, whose lives come under siege from a corrupt mayor, Vadim, who wants to take away Kolya's house, his land, and his business for development. The film won the 2014 Golden Globe Award for "Best Foreign Movie", and was named Best Film at the 2014 London Film Festival Awards.
The film has Biblical relevance. It relates to the story of Job and his sufferings, and the tragedies that can befall a righteous man. It partly parallels Heinrich von Kleist's novella, "Michael Kohlhaas", which was made into a powerful movie in 2013 by Arnaud des Pallieres.
When Vadim (Roman Madyanov) tells Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) that his home will be demolished, Kolya hires an Army friend of his from Moscow, Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to assist him legally. Vadim undervalues the property and uses a compulsory purchase order in law to support his claim. Dimitri digs into Vadim's unsavoury past to try to restrain him personally, but the strategy to pressure him in this way backfires.
Vadim angrily urges the judiciary to look after its own self-interests, and the resident Russian Orthodox Bishop wilfully encourages Vadim to use the power that he already holds in the town as its mayor to solve the conflict. Kolya's wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) has an affair with Dimitri. "Forgive her", Kolya tells his son, "she's a good person". But overcome by guilt for her infidelity to her husband, Lilya acts in unexpected ways and the Law blames Kolya.
The movie ends with Kolya's' house being demolished by a huge Leviathan-like crane in scenes which are contrasted with a richly-robed Bishop sermonising hypocritically to his wealthy congregation to uphold the virtues of love and Christian understanding, and to believe that "God dwells in truth".
The film brilliantly confronts social issues in contemporary Russia and deals with the abuses of modern law, that are used by people in authority. It highlights the lives, struggles, and tragedies of people caught up by the abuses, and it examines the impact of friendships that don't mean what they should, and trust that is seriously misplaced. Both civil and church authority come in for fierce comment. Corruption has affected the town's administration, its police force, and the clergy.
The photography in the film is stunning. The town's location is desolate, and its images are cold, forbidding and meaningful. An image of a long-dead whale featured in the movie (the Leviathan of the title) reflects the human despair of the people in the village, and the film's photography and direction dramatically convey the inequality with which ordinary people are treated, and the hidden nature of their entrenched discrimination.
This is a powerful film about a simple man who decides to take on his oppressors, cloaked in deceitful versions of their own authority. It depicts the tragic results of harassment, intimidation, and corruption in modern society, and Russia is its example. The film is acted and directed with magnificent force, and it develops moments of incredible drama, intimacy, and suspense. Andrey Zvagintsev's direction is sensitive, probing, and controlled.
The literal meaning of "Leviathan" in this movie is the huge skeleton of the whale on the beach, seen at key points in the film, and there are glimpses of a whale swimming in the sea. Allegorically, the word refers to the Book of Job (mentioned by a local orthodox Priest in conversation with Kolya), but also to Thomas Hobbes' 1651 thesis of the same name which is about relinquishing liberty to an authoritative regime that forces resignation. The movie pursues its themes critically and philosophically. It is fiercely satirical in its thrust, and at times profoundly cynical.
This is a dark, bleak film of exceptional quality. It is beautifully scripted, acted and directed, and invites thoughtful interpretation almost at every turn. To see it as simply anti-Russian is too narrow. It depicts a wronged man's struggle with corruption, and it rages at empty moralising, but it also speaks to the nature and fallibility of the human condition. It shows us powerfully and movingly what can happen when Law and Religion operate to take advantage of human suffering and vulnerability.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 26th., 2015