Leviathan

March 28, 2015
Elena Lyadova in 'Leviathan' (2014)
Elena Lyadova in 'Leviathan' (2014)

If you’ve ever wondered why the Russians drink so much, Leviathan has all the answers. No nation does ‘bleak’ so well, but the art lies in creating something both bleak and magnificent at the same time. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov were exemplary, while Tarkovsky managed the feat better than any other modern Russian director.

Enter Andrey Zvyaginstsev, who enjoyed a spectacular debut with The Return (2003), but received mixed reviews for the two films that followed. Leviathan is as grim as anything Zvyagintsev has made, but it is also his masterpiece. In the context of Russia today, where critics of the Putin regime can face prison or a mysterious fatality, it’s a fearless portrayal of a nation in which power leads inexorably to crime.

The story is set in an isolated, unidentifed town on the Russian coast. Filming took place in locations near Murmansk, but for dramatic purposes one desolate piece of Russian coastline looks very much like the next. The grey, rugged landscape provides an appropriate backdrop for a tale in which the worst aspects of human nature are laid bare. The film begins and ends with long pans over rocky headlands, to the pulsating tones of Philip Glass’s score from the opera, Akhenation.

Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic who scrapes a living from repairing automobiles in a home workshop. He lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son from an earlier marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), who is going through the violent mood swings of puberty. The family are facing eviction from their house because the local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), has his eye on the property and has ordered that it be surrendered for a pathetically low value.

Kolya has called in the assistance of his old army friend, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a lawyer in Moscow. Although Dmitri recognises there is no way to fight the Mayor in the local court, he has a dossier of Vadim’s evil deeds that can be used to exert pressure. This goes according to plan until Dmitri and Lilya embark on an affair, which destroys the men’s close-knit friendship, and throws Kolya’s family life into crisis.

The Mayor, meanwhile, has been to see the Bishop, who advises him to trust in his own power to deal with the lawyer’s threats. For Vadim this means trusting in violence and intimidation while redoubling his efforts to get hold of Kolya’s property. There is not a moment in this film when we feel like a happy ending might be on the cards, but there is a morbid fascination in wondering how bad it can get.

Russia may be in its post-Communist era, but the new order seems even worse. As an elected official the Mayor believes the law is a tool to be used for whatever purposes he thinks fit. The police chief and other functionaries are Vadim’s accomplices whose prosperity depends on his survival in office. The Bishop provides him with spiritual reassurance: whatever happens, it is God’s will.

As for Kolya and his friends, their idea of a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment is to drive 100 kilometres into a wasteland, where they drink vodka and shoot at bottles, or perhaps at portraits of former Soviet leaders. One of their party likes to use an AK47. When times are good they drink to celebrate, when things turn bad they drown their sorrows. Zvyaginstsev shows us a microcosm of Russian society, drifting through life in a drunken stupor. If Lilya falls into bed with the visitor from Moscow it is an escape from a depressing existence in which most days are spent working at the fish factory.

All Roma sees are adults getting drunk and getting into fights, being treated like insects by authorities who are no better than gangsters. Every relationship is combative and brutal, every friendship tainted with self-interest. The town’s teenagers spend their nights drinking around a bonfire in the ruins of a church, where frescoes are still visible on the walls.

In his trials and privations, Kolya is compared to Job, from the Old Testament. We meet the Leviathan in The Book of Job 41: 1-34, in the guise of a monstrous sea creature:

Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more/ Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?

Thomas Hobbes took this as a metaphor for the state in Leviathan (1651), a classic of political philosophy written during the English Civil War. Hobbes was an apologist for absolute monarchy which he saw as the safeguard against the state of nature, described as “the war of all against all.” This argument is still used as a justification for every dictatorship – a paternal authority over people who are “not ready” for democracy.

Vadim, fat, drunken and dictatorial, acts as the absolute monarch, his reign sanctified by the Church. The Leviathan is the nation, the community, and a front-end loader which destroys a house in a memorable, utterly pitiless scene. It is also a set of bleached whale bones on the beach – a pronouncement that even the great, invincible monster of the corrupt state will eventually die. This is a matter of indifference, however, to Kolya and an entire generation of Russians who are powerless in the face of the beast.

Zvyaginstsev is a director who likes to leave many threads of a story dangling in mid-air. This is more disturbing than any shocking revelation. The implication is that we don’t need to know – for the truth would make no difference to the outcome.

Leviathan
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Written by Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergey Pokhodaev, Aleksey Rozin
Russia, rated M, 141 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th March, 2015.

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