Leviathan is one of thirteen films in competition at Filmfest München, and it looks like a solid contender for the top prize. Its director and co-writer, Andrey Zvyaginstev, won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes, though there was some surprise that it did not come out with the Palme d’Or given the praise heaped upon it during the festival. Thanks to its success in Cannes, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film in the USA and the film looks like it will be distributed in around fifty countries1, but the director’s home country does not yet look like it is part of that spread.
There’s an obvious tension here in that the film was partly financed by the Russian Ministry of Culture and is one of the most critically successful films to come out of the country in the last decade. One gets the feeling that the lack of support in distribution has to do with the obviously political currents running through Leviathan, which have been understandably read as critical of the Russian government. The film is set in a small town in the north of Russia bordering the Barent Sea. In it, a family is threatened with eviction from their property by a corrupt town mayor, who wants to build a “palace” in its place. The patriarch, Kolia, enlists the help of his old friend Dimitri, a lawyer from Moscow, to fight the eviction notice by exposing the mayor’s corruption. The bureaucratic organ of the state are brutally callous and underhanded; they conceal funds, bully the police into targeting members of the community, and are implicated in the murder sentencing of one of the film’s main characters.
The director has since insisted that the film is not specifically critical of the Russian government, but this seems to be a bit of diplomatic backpedalling on his behalf. In one of the most talked-about scenes in the film, the mayor sits at his desk and negotiates a settlement with the Moscow advocate – all the while a portrait of Vladmir Putin hangs above his head. In another, the main characters go out on a shooting and drinking bender to celebrate the birthday of their friend, a local policeman. After running out of bottles to use as target practice, one of the party pulls out a series of framed portraits of ex-Soviet heads of state to shoot at, strongly recalling the ending of Elen Klimov’s classic of Soviet cinema, Come and See.2
As these descriptions suggest, Zvyaginstev does not deal in subtlety in Leviathan, preferring instead to work with broad brush-strokes and grand gestures. As the name might suggest, the film takes cues from two major works of western thought and philosophy: the Old Testament (and specifically the Book of Job) and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In the former, Job’s faith is tested by God, who takes away his plentiful wealth and children to see whether he will remain as pious in the face of suffering and misery as he did in times of happiness and prosperity. In the latter, the philosopher Hobbes posits that man enters into a social contract to create the monstrous State, to whom we give up part of our personal freedom in order to prevent “the war of all against all” that would ensue without its security. In both, man’s liberty is necessarily impinged upon by sovereign forces: both God and the State giveth and taketh away. These are large, classical themes that Zvyaginstev tackles in the film: the individual and society, free will and freedom, the bewildering relationship between man and divine predestination. Perhaps this is how the director has justified the film as a work addressing universal spiritual and metaphysical questions rather than specific Russian problems.
What is most impressive about Leviathan is the dedication and bravado with which it commits to this filmic classicism. The strongest cinematic reference point seems to be the Hollywood western, and not just because of the familiar threatened property storyline. As in a film by John Ford, for example, Zvyaginstev starts on the macro level, descends to the micro, and opens back out on the universal: nature, the individual, the State; establishing shot, close-up, wide angle. While the drama is well handled and executed by the cast, the more satisfying aspect of the film is the correspondence between these small and large scale elements. Space co-exists with action – the sea and the landscape with the drama of its inhabitants – and it is in the balance between the two that the universality of the story that Zvyaginstev has espoused emerges.
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