As the cold wind of corruption blows through the Siberian steppes, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan sees no hope of redemption. Or maybe just a little.
A Hero Of Our Time by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s a masterful ease to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, from its graceful opening as it zooms in over a sequence of frozen landscapes in Northern Russia onto a small town on a lake. This is a director in complete control. Like Elena, his biting parable on the inequality of wealth, Leviathan is another very Russian tale of inequality and greed – as one man attempts to stand up against the machine. Corruption is rife – politics in bed with both the Church and the Law. And the Little Man stands no chance, his attempts to bring down this Leviathan (a Biblical sea monster) inevitably destined to fail. And yet, echoed in the whale skeletons that litter the shores, Zvyagintsev’s melancholy tale also offers an encouragement, that even should this fictional attempt fail, some of those mighty beasts have been killed before.
Ex-soldier and handyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives in a house by the lake with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev). It’s prime real estate, and as such has been confiscated by the state. His army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer, has come from Moscow to help Kolya with the court case, which unsurprisingly goes badly. But Dmitri has an ace up his sleeve – some dirt he’s dug up on the town’s mayor (Roman Madyanov) – a corrupt alcoholic and arrogant puppet master pulling the community’s strings. But while Dmitri and Kolya attempt to withstand intimidation, their precarious life on the Siberian plain begins to fracture – as family ties come undone, and all-too-human emotions – cowardice and desire – get in the way.
With neither Church, Law nor Politics for protection, Zvyagintsev’s Man is utterly alone. Left to fend for himself, even his friends don’t count for much. And with Dmitri and Lilya carrying on behind Kolya’s back, it’s every man for himself. Despite some early signs of solidarity with his friend on the police force and his big-city lawyer buddy Dmitri, in the end it’s Kolya’s fight alone. One man to fell a Leviathan. And when Judgement Day inevitably arrives, and the beautiful wooden and glass house that Kolya made with his own hands is wrecked by a digger, it’s a devastating and heartbreaking indictment of Russian corruption – materially able to destroy lives – friendships, relationships and homes.
A seemingly simple story of small-town corruption, Leviathan has all the weight of Russian literature behind it, like something out of Chekhov or Tolstoy. Its arrogant, fat and alcoholic mayor, who wants to crush his constituents like insects, is a pure-bred pre-revolutionary capitalist villain. But Leviathan is also silently contemporary, with its portrait of Putin glowering from over the corrupt mayor’s shoulder and glimpses of Pussy Riot on the TV, the real-life Russian Davids taking on Goliath. And of course, the petrol drum that bobs in the ocean at the site of Lilya’s suicide, the oil in the Russian machine. The silence of these images though lies in stark contrast to the mayor’s web-weaving, the priest’s sermonising and the Law’s lengthy proclamations. Resistance, it seems, is silent, just like Dmitri’s evidence against the Mayor that remains throughout the film unspoken.
Of course, a silently smoking gun isn’t enough to fell the beast. And the absence of a solution, a fictional catharsis or otherwise, lends an inconsolable bleakness to Leviathan, leaving us hankering for an ending in which Kolya and Dmitri stand together against the Beast and the Muscovite doesn’t run off back to the big smoke. A dénouement which would turn these all-too-real humans (and their failings) into heroes. And yet, by pitting man against the world and each other, Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan shows that it’s not individual action that will pull in the leviathan with a fishhook. Like the sequence in which Kolya and Dmitri go on a vodka-fuelled shooting trip, and portraits of former Soviet Party leaders are used for target practice, there are no more sacred gods. No singular heroism nor proletariat struggle. Only a monstrous and fearsome beast. The enemy has now been sighted, and while it might still be at large, at least now it’s in open water.
Leviathan is released on 7th November 2014 in the UK