Russian cinema has always commanded international respect, even when things were frosty between the Soviet Union and the ‘West.’ The same still holds true for the modern arthouse movies from the country. Since the early 2000s, Andrei Zvyagintsev has become one of the more distinguished Russian directors. Particularly because of the recent crisis between his homeland, Ukraine, and the NATO, Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature, Leviathan, has seen a lot of politically-motivated controversy coming its way. The question is, then, how good is the movie and how much of an accurate portrait of today’s Russia does it provide?
Dmitri Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a mysterious lawyer from Moscow, arrives in the small coastal town Pribezhny in the Barents Sea to help out an old Army friend. The simple-minded mechanic Kolya Sergeev (Aleksei Serebryanov) leads an ordinary life there with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev), but the family is haunted by the corrupt mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) who has an eye on Kolya’s house, land, and small car repair and tries to seize it. Seeing that he has no chance against the mayor at court, Dmitri blackmails Shelevyat. Seleznyov uses compromising documents that prove the official’s past life as a mobster.
Things turn sour, however, when the lawyer begins an extramarital affair with Lilya (and Kolya finds out), and when the mayor turns to the local Orthodox bishop (Igor Sergeev) for spiritual guidance. The priest subliminally lets Shelevyat know that he should use the power of his office to solve his problems – thus encouraging him to hire thugs that give the attorney a good thump, intimidate him with a mock execution, and urge him to return to Moscow. Yet Dmitri’s flight back to the capital is only the beginning of Kolya’s tenure as a modern Job who is swallowed by the omnipotent Leviathan that is modern Russia. At the end of his journey, he will have lost everything to the colossal monster and be all by himself.
Over the last decade and a half, Andrei Zvyagintsev has carved out a career as a filmmaker from depicting post-Soviet Russia. His latest movie is but the logical continuation of his first three features, The Return, The Banishment, and Elena, who all show the (sometimes drab) everyday existence on different levels and employ Christian symbolism to convey a sense of universality. Likewise, the iconography in Leviathan points at the past – and to a different ersatz religion. We see a statue of Lenin, the familiar faces of other former Soviet (and Russian) leaders, and a portrait of Vladimir Putin hanging on the mayor’s wall, showing that, as David Bowie once sang, ‘Nothing has changed and everything has changed.’
The ghost of yesteryear, of the communist period, indeed still haunts the now capitalist country. The proof to the pudding would be a new censorship law prohibiting swearing in Russian movies that further delayed the film’s release at home and caused its mutilation. Even though 35% of its budget was funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, the secretary of that department, Vladimir Medinsky, criticized Leviathan sharply because the ordinary people in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s work ‘swear and swig liters of vodka.’ Obstacles such as censorship, however, have never really held back Russians. By the time the movie finally hit the domestic theaters, many of them had already gotten hold of the uncensored international version via the good old samizdat route.
In a way, Leviathan has therefore already be put on a level with literary masterpieces like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, which were both shunned in the Soviet Union yet acclaimed abroad, or cinematic opera magna such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Nostalghia. The poet may have been worth nothing at home during the Soviet era, or at least some of them weren’t, but there has always been a somewhat ambivalent treatment of these artists. For instance, while Stalin had many of Bulgakov’s dramas banned from the stages of the USSR, he was also fond of him, protected the writer from arrests and execution, and even kept him employed.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet career may have suffered from censorship, particularly in the case of Andrei Rublev (for its religious content). At the same time, he probably received a preferable treatment in comparison to other iconoclast artists because he was the son of a renowned poet. The director of The Mirror, incidentally, is a good starting point when looking for Andrei Zvyagintsev’s role models. There are some striking similarities between the two – which should come as no surprise, given that the Leviathan filmmaker has cited Tarkovsky as a major influence. The cinematography, the narrative speed, the religious allusions, and the metaphysical approach of Zvyagintsev’s first four features are all comparable to what those in the Soviet filmmaker’s (relatively few) motion pictures.
Is Leviathan a parable of Putin’s Russia, then? Yes and no. There is certainly ample criticism of the system the president has established since first entering office in 2000 – of the land expropriations that took place before the Sochi Winter Olympics, the widening social gap, and especially of the corruption among officials and the ties between the Orthodox Church and the state. At the heart of the movie, however, we find something more universal. In fact, the screenplay is loosely inspired by the story of an American named Marvin Heemeyer, who went on a killdozer rampage in Colorado in 2004, garnished with biblical and other ancient tales – and Andrei Zvyagintsev initially wanted to shoot Leviathan in the United States before changing his mind.
Despite his movie facing many obstacles at home, particularly since winning in the Best Screenplay category in Cannes and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the director has gone public with stating that the financial backing by the Russian state has never interfered with the content of Leviathan. The Academy Award consideration has created much fanfare in Hollywood, because Andrei Zvyagintsev’s latest work is considered pretty ‘anti-Putin’ stateside. Nonetheless, the validity of the Oscars has to be questioned as well, and even more so since a reactionary, overly patriotic movie like Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was a contender for six ‘Golden Boys.’
As brilliant as Leviathan is, unofficially anointing Andrei Zvyagintsev as his country’s cinematic ambassador somehow reeks of new Cold War, rah-rah propaganda in this context. There is much to dislike about Russia having become less democratic and open-minded under Putin’s guide in recent years. Some of it may perhaps be attributed to the current Ukraine crisis and to the standoff between the former heartland of the Soviet Union and the United States that has secretly been going on for years already. What happens to some of the characters in Leviathan, particularly to Kolya, is sad, traumatic, even disturbing, but who’s to say it might not happen anywhere else?
The protagonist isn’t really too much of a positive character, although we somehow feel inclined to root for him. Neither is anyone else in the story. The most likable person in the story is probably Lilya, who despises her rural existence and her life with Kolya. She sees no other solution than committing suicide after her ticket out of town (Dmitri) disappears. Elena Lyadova stands out in this role, just as she was as the rebellious daughter in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s earlier drama Elena, yet all the other actors do a fine job as well. The question remains, however, whether you can really empathize with any of the characters in Leviathan. Each of them is morally flawed.
As much as we sometimes may feel for Lilya, she jumps at the first chance to betray her husband with another man and the opportunity to skip town with him. Dmitri, on the other hand, may be a sharp lawyer from the big city, but he isn’t exactly the ethical person he initially pretends to be. He resorts to rather questionable methods at times. Blackmail and adultery don’t scare him at all, although he eventually has to face the consequences for his dubious behavior in the form of the mock execution. While Kolya is the prototypical modern Job, everyone in Leviathan must also face obstacles of their own. It’s debatable, however, if this a man facing a loose monster as the protagonist does in the corrupt, overpowering machinery, is merely a Russian problem.
The answer is a ‘probably not,’ since all states have a tendency to go overboard – including those democratic nations claiming to be above everyone else in the moral department. After all, the origin of the Leviathan story is an American going berserk because he couldn’t win a zoning dispute with the town of Granby, Colorado. It’s just that Russians are probably better equipped for such situations, since they have historically faced hardships on a constant basis, be it under the Tsars from the Romanov dynasty, Lenin, Stalin, or whoever followed them. The recent developments under Putin’s stewardship are therefore far from a new experience for them, at least not for the ones who were already grown-ups during the Soviet years.
Rather, Leviathan is an odyssey that leads into the darkness embellished with typical Russian traits. Andrei Zvyagintsev cites Fyodor Dostoevsky as a major influence on him, and there are definitely some parallels between the famous writer’s tales and the director’s movies. We witness the returning influence of the Orthodox Church since the collapse of the USSR, and particularly so over the last decade and a half. Following Karl Marx, Lenin once dubbed religion an ‘opium for the masses,’ and there’s probably some truth to that in the conservative modern Russia. In the dawning of the new East/West conflict, however, Leviathan is almost like manna from heaven for the Western critics of Putin’s system. The film is a godsend in that regard, because it allows for finger-pointing. With less of a political eye from either side, though, Leviathan is just a really good arthouse movie.