“Leviathan” is a vast, scathing exploration of the troubles facing contemporary Russia, portrayed through the story of a classic and simple tragic love triangle. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a masterpiece precisely because he is able to accomplish a macro-criticism of Russian politics while simultaneously painting an entrancing familial tragedy.
There is very little room for relief during “Leviathan.” The audience is constantly bombarded by the film’s despair. Its basic storyline revolves around the family of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova) along with their son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). A corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), attempts to force them to sell the beautiful piece of land in northern Russia on which they live. Kolya brings in his old friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer, to help fight Vadim’s claim. The rest of the film develops around this central conflict.
The film’s title alone sets a very clear and consistent theme with Leviathan’s nod to the classic Hobbesian work of political philosophy. Vadim is the film’s Putin-like placeholder for the gluttonous, unceasing appetites of big government. In the same way he seeks to take the land from Kolya’s family, Vadim is almost always eating or drinking in his scenes – he is constantly consuming.
However, the title is also a reminder to keep the Old Testament, and specifically Job, in mind when watching the film. The Leviathan is a beast discussed in Job 41, and this reference only strengthens the notion that Vadim, and the Russian government he represents, is dangerous and difficult to stop. However, the allusion to Job takes this idea a step further because the film also has a significant amount of religious commentary. There are several points at which a priest reassures Vadim of the rightness of his actions. Zvyagintsev seems to be making it a point that the Russian government has not simply become so abhorrent on its own, but it is mutually beneficial partners with the Orthodox Church.
The film also shows the Russian people in a constant state of drunkenness. There are very few scenes in which vodka is not involved. The implication is that nobody is happy in this system, including the political leaders such as Vadim – every individual is looking for an escape from this overbearing system. The concern may be that this system has become too big (like a Leviathan) and too ingrained in Russian culture for there to still be a chance to escape it.
Aside from a few very brief moments of humor, the film is a nonstop barrage of cold realizations that leave viewers feeling empty and powerless. It is impressive just how consistent everything in the film is to this message and this feeling. Because the protagonists’ home is in northern Russia near the water, the film is interspersed with shots of the rough seas. As intimidating as the overbearing Russian government are the shots of the Barents Sea as waves crash mightily into the cliffs: beautiful, but very obviously deadly.
The acting in “Leviathan” is only another impressive attribute. As the Russian stereotype often suggests, the characters in “Leviathan” often show little emotion and, if they do, that emotion tends to be anger. However, it is this stoic nature that makes it so much more difficult to make the intense, important scenes truly genuine. But this cast is able to execute that task with seeming ease. In particular, Madyanov impresses with his fantastic portrayal of the corrupt mayor. Despite their difference in appearance, it is appropriately difficult to forget Putin when watching Madyanov’s performance.
Few films are as difficult to watch as “Leviathan,” but few are also so worthwhile. Whether or not Russian politics are of any particular interest to the viewer, this film has a lot more to say than simply that Putin’s policies are bad. It also explores the reactions of families to external circumstances that put pressure on their relationships. It is this examination, though, that makes it so grim – the little guy never wins in this film. Had the film done nothing but put forth an analysis of Russian politics, it would be easy to disconnect from the content, but this is a film that will draw just about anybody in and take him to a dark place without the viewer even realizing how quickly he got there.
Zvyagintsev does a phenomenal job in bringing his own powerful Leviathan-like vision to screen – massive, imposing, and too big to avoid. While the film was released in the Unite States on the final day of 2014, if you come across it in the future, it is a worthwhile journey that will only become even more revealing and enticing the next time it is seen.