LEVIATHAN (Leviafan) A-
Russia (140 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?
Russia (140 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?
or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?
Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?
Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
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?
None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?
—Job 41:1 – 10
The first Russian film to win a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film (Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev Takes Golden Globe and FIPRESCI Prize) since Sergei Bondarchuk’s WAR AND PEACE in 1969, which went on to win an Academy Award in the same category, while Nikita Mikhalkov’s BURNT BY THE SUN (1994) was the last Russian film to win an Academy Award. Continuing in a series of bold and audacious Russian films that attempt to authenticate the abysmal conditions there, where the remnants of Stalinist brutality are everywhere to be seen, especially the way ordinary citizens continually pay the price for rampant government corruption that continues unabated. Human lives are seen as disposable, murder and lies are condoned, so long as it protects the good standing of those currently in power. While this is a particularly bleak worldview, it’s consistent with the equally distressing themes from other films coming out of Russia, where the most gruesome are Alexei Balabanov’s CARGO 200 (2007) and Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schastye moe) (2010), but also Aleksei Popogrebsky’s spare and beautiful 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #6 How I Ended This Summer, Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn) (2013), both featuring the ruggedness of a barren location, and Yuri Bykov’s equally memorable The Major (Mayor) (2013) and 2014 Top Ten List #9 The Fool (Durak), which prominently feature Dostoyevskian themes of dubious morality on display. In each of these films, Russia is depicted much like a western in the days of the Wild West frontier where there was scant evidence of any civilized rule of law, where men had to stand up for themselves and only the strongest survived, usually through bloodshed. LEVIATHAN, however, is not just a good movie in a similar vein, but it’s particularly well-made, where the acting is superb, the cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is simply astonishing, while the editing and sound design are exceptional, with music from Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, Philip Glass - Akhnaten HQ [Prelude; Refrain, Verse 1 ... YouTube (10:46), with that throbbing church organ blasting into the stratosphere at about the four and a half minute mark, where this particular attention to craftsmanship and meticulous detail is rare in cinema today, especially in an era of scarce funding. One of the most important filmmakers working today, Zvyagintsev continues to make relevant films, where his starkly austere and emotionally spare first film THE RETURN (2003) won first prize at the Venice Film Festival and remains his most mystifyingly unique, while THE BANISHMENT (2007) and Elena (2011) are both reflective of his mastery over the medium.
Partly inspired by the real-life incident of Marvin Heemeyer who in 2004 went on a violent rampage demolishing the town hall and the mayor’s property in the small town of Granby, Colorado, supposedly outraged over the outcome of a zoning dispute. Loosely reshaping what happened to resemble an updated version of the Biblical story of Job, Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, where the story is set on Russia’s far northern coast above the Arctic circle on the Kola Peninsula near the Finnish border, in a small fishing village overlooking the Barents Sea. With the breathtaking beauty of the opening cinematography, what’s immediately striking is the awesome force of nature, where civilization exists on the edge of a wild and uncontrollable sea, where waves are seen crashing against the rocks, and left behind on the shore is an age-old whale carcass that’s likely been there longer than anyone can remember, where its skeletal remains are a reminder of the mortality of human existence. While the outdoor shooting took place in the town of Teriberka, the protagonist is an angry young Russian mechanic named Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov) whose family has been rooted to the same location for generations, living in a decaying and unpretentious wood frame house with windows overlooking the sea. Kolya is as rugged as the land itself, a supremely individualistic man who drinks vodka relentlessly while swearing about the devious nature of the town mayor who for years has been trying to get his hands on their property. A former soldier, Kolya is living with his beautiful wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) along with a distant and delinquent teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from an earlier marriage. Their best friends and frequent visitors to their home are another married couple, Pacha (Aleksei Rozin), a police officer and fellow drinking buddy, and his outspoken wife Angela (Anna Ukolova). What’s immediately apparent is the familiarity they have with one another, especially after several rounds of drinking, where no judgments are made as they seemingly embrace one other, flaws and all, like an extended part of the family. But whatever stability exists comes to a crashing end as the scene shifts to the inside of a courtroom where a female judge speed reads his sentence in a thoroughly detached monotone, ultimately deciding to take his land away. Kolya’s response is typical, to drown his sorrows in vodka, while later the equally drunk Mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), in a much more celebratory mood pulls up to his house in a mammoth SUV along with several armed henchmen and screams between the curses, “You don’t have any rights, you never had any rights, and you will never have any rights!”
A new face arrives on the scene, an old army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), Kolya’s former senior officer, now a hot-shot attorney in Moscow who has to acknowledge that on the face of it things don’t look good, that the cards are stacked in the Mayor’s favor, instituting a plan to dig up the dirt on the Mayor and confront him with publicizing his misdeeds, which may pressure him to change his mind. While he has some initial success, as Vadim is flabbergasted that some slick Moscow attorney has such high level contacts to expose him, where in desperate straights, Vadim calls in his advisors to double check his options, but despite his pattern of cronyism, they remind him not to get so worked up, that things will work out, while also scheduling a personal appointment with the Orthodox priest, which turns out to be a most curious visit. It’s important to understand that after the fall of the Soviet regime, the Russian Orthodox Church moved in and merged with the State, quickly reclaiming valuable real estate not only from factories and bureaucratic institutions but also from schools and hospitals, where a new church was being constructed seemingly on every street corner. These construction projects were funded by entrepreneurs aligned with the government and more often than not involved bribing local officials, where overnight studying The Bible became a mandatory subject in schools while the head of the Church was wearing a forty thousand dollar wristwatch. This sudden spurt of economic growth as a byproduct of rampant corruption is right out of Fassbinder’s LOLA (1981), where attempts at ethical reform and following the letter of the law are set aside for the sake of expedience. Dmitri is so sure of himself, using the power of the law to empower a David over a Goliath, that he reaps the benefits of an overly grateful friend by sleeping with his wife, something that comes as a shock to the audience, but Kolya has lost all rational comprehension and has veered into delirium and near incapacity from excessive drinking, so he’s oblivious to what’s going on. Dmitri, however, has already asked Lilya to return to Moscow with him, something on the face of it that would sound unthinkable.
While the film is a critique of abuse of power, exposing how capitalism makes for strange bedfellows, while also drawing a larger picture of moral authority, actually bringing in the word of God in order to grasp the profound depths of the situation. Job continually found himself at the mercy of the Lord, who tested his faith by a seeming limitless capacity to endure whatever obstacle God placed in his path. But the parable of the entitled Leviathan taken from The Bible suggests there are powers greater than any man can endure, where death is but one of them. The looming portrait of Putin hanging on the walls of the State offices is impossible to miss. What elevates this particular film from others about corruption is how it connects the Russian Orthodox Church to the power of the Russian State, where their common interests are not for the benefit of people needing their services, but instead becomes an undaunted power grab, much like Henry VIII declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, where absolute power can do whatever it wants, steal, lie, kidnap, murder, inflict harm, declare war, or act irrationally and still continue to get away with it. While Dmitri will soon discover he lacks this ultimate authority, he was nonetheless deluded enough to believe for a moment that he did through the power of law. The fatalism of Roma and his friends, resigned to forever being outsiders, is the fate of the next generation knowing their future is doomed under the same unquestioned authority. Lilya is perhaps the most anguished soul of them all, largely because she has the capacity to envision a better life, as Russia toyed with the idea of a democracy, but also watched that vision go down in defeat at the hands of absolute power, where she is similarly forced to accept a world with no future while capitulating to those who would take everything away from her in the process. Kolya, on the other hand, has fended off every disaster with a sorrow rooted deeply within his Russian soul, but all that’s left is an instilled blindness, a brutal punishment with no chance of spiritual ascension, where drunken excess numbing the pain is the only way to endure the present, where there are simply no more thoughts about tomorrow. In dramatic fashion, Zvyagintsev stages a drunken shooting party like The Last Supper, a vodka-fueled picnic where Kolya and his brethren of friends display spectacular humor at the Kafkaesque absurdity of their lives living in a Russian “shithole,” which is a mere fantasy or prelude of freedom, allowing their exaggerated, out of control behavior to grow to grotesque levels of excess, while the real events that matter will soon follow afterwards, where their lives are about to unravel, twisted into unrecognizable pieces of their former selves, beleaguered characters broken by an indomitable wind that blows over the land.