The old adage that you can’t fight city hall has rarely been dramatized so pointedly as in “Leviathan,” a film that conjoins the two great literary references to that mythical beast, the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes’s famous work of political philosophy. Though it’s a satire, it certainly won’t generate many laughs: this is a dark, bitter commentary on how absolute power corrupts absolutely and smashes those who resist it.
There are many notable aspects to Andrej Zvyagintsev’s picture, but surely one of them is that though the manifestly corrupt municipal officials it portrays are Russian, and by implication they represent the entire regime ruling that country, it was nonetheless subsidized by the Kremlin’s Ministry of Culture. It would appear that under Vladimir Putin, the Russian Leviathan’s right hand doesn’t know what its left is doing, for in this tale of power and suffering the authorities (both secular and ecclesiastical) are depicted—in words that Hobbes used to different purpose—as nasty and brutish, though at 142 minutes Zvyagintsev’s film could hardly be called short. But that real-life act of governmental incompetence may just be the most hopeful point the film has to make, for otherwise its message is bleak indeed.
The plot involves a property dispute between the local government and an irascible landholder. In a remote area of northwestern Russia, hot-tempered mechanic Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) lives in the ramshackle lakeside house that’s long been his family’s property, along with his rebellious teen son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and his much younger second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who travels daily to town by bus to work in the fish-canning factory. Mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) has decided to seize Kolya’s property for some sort of development, using the power of eminent domain—and his control of the tribunals that decide such matters—to achieve his aim. Kolya has called in an old army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in Moscow, to oppose the mayor’s action. Dmitri first tries to go through channels, but when legal means fail (in fact, the cops arrest Kolya when he protests their refusal to help), Dmitri will resort to simple blackmail, threatening to expose the mayor’s many misdeeds to higher-ups unless he relents. Of course, it proves unwise to try such tactics against a ruthless man.
Dmitri’s arrival, moreover, causes domestic difficulties when he and Lilya find themselves attracted to each other. They choose to tempt fate by slipping off together during a coastal shooting outing the family takes with their friends, traffic cop Pacha (Alexey Rozin) and his wife Angela (Anna Ukolova), who works at the factory with Lilya. It’s a trip where—as elsewhere throughout the picture—Kolya is driven by large amounts of vodka, which many of the characters regularly consume in simply enormous quantities. Ironically, it’s here, while joining with his pals in firing at special targets—presentation photos of former state leaders (when the man who brought them is asked why not the recent ones, the response is that they’re not important enough)—that Kolya discovers the truth about his friend and his wife. The aftermath will lead to Dmitri’s departure, though not until after he’s endured violence not once but twice, and to a family tragedy that will settle the dispute between Kolya and Vadim in a way that takes the perversion of justice to an even higher level.
There’s very little joy to be found in the society depicted by “Leviathan,” if you don’t count the sort of desperate energy that comes out of the bottle. The lives of the “ordinary” people—Kolya and his family, his friends—consist merely in tolerating miserable conditions and drowning their sorrows. Roma regularly goes off to drink with the other kids in the ruins of a church, and what we’re shown of the “thriving” Russian Orthodox establishment—in the person of the local priest living in luxury and assuring the mayor of the rectitude of what he’s doing—suggests that morally it’s in even greater disrepair. Even an impoverished priest, when challenged by Kolya, quotes a line from the Book of Job referring to the great fish called the Leviathan, which one cannot tame (an image recalled by a whale’s skeleton glimpsed on the seashore)—a recommendation of submission rather than resistance. Zvyagintsev’s film offers no hope of victory in the face of an all-powerful, all-corrupt regime guided by nothing but greed and self-interest.
And yet while “Leviathan” is hardly subtle in hammering home its themes (even the background music, drawn from Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” relates to an absolute kind of power), or in the style of acting (since the director encourages his cast, especially Serebryakov, to emote at the highest decibel level), it’s elusive in style, often keeping the most important actions off-screen, so that we’re compelled to imagine them rather than seeing them directly. It also uses the setting incisively, with Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography situating characters against the backdrop of an imposing—and unforgiving landscape.
So this is a modern-day Job story, but one in which the man doing the suffering is certainly no saint, and there’s no reversal of fortune at the end; the Leviathan steals what the man, who certainly doesn’t suffer in silence, possesses and, like the waves beating against the rocks in the closing shot, will continue to pound those who dare to oppose it mercilessly. It’s a dire point of view that the film definitely posits against Russia, but one that can also be taken in a more universal sense.