Leviathan. Russia (2014). Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev / Screenplay by Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin / Cinematography by Mikhail Krichman / Edited by Anna Mass / Production design by Andrey Ponkratov. Starring Alexey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenko, Roman Madyanov, Sergei Pokhodaev.
In Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), the injustice of corruption is forced upon us in a drama with no easy answers and in a narrative which , on the face of it, fails to console, however much we might yearn for redress. As the Leviathan is let loose on humanity, however, there may be a way to survive it.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) transports us to the far north of Russia, to a decaying, unlovely marginal fishing town in an austerely beautiful sub-Arctic landscape scrubbed bare by glaciers and lapped by an immense, leaden ocean—a landscape which reflects nothing. Following the death of his wife, dour local mechanic Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) has remarried, his sad, taciturn new wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) now stepmother to fractious teenager Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev). The family lives in Kolia’s family home, a ramshackle house of not inconsiderable character with a good view. In a move redolent of a malevolent fairy story, the corpulent local mayor and strong-arm man Vadim (Roman Madyanov) decides that, despite the availability of lots of derelict and ruined plots to choose from, Kolia’s house is the place where he will build his splendid palace, pursuing a legal acquisition of the plot and house. Kolia dejectedly seeks the help of a friend turned Moscow lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenko), who cools off his hothead friend and fights the mayor in court. Proving ineffective, Dmitri also has a thing for Lilya (a backstory the origins of which we learn little about). As the case founders and Dmitri fades in distressing manner from the story, we have left only the self-destructive Kolia, whose jealousy and unintentional cruelty hasten his ruin and cast him upon a terrible shore. Faintly recalling the kind of structural narrative shift in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men (2007), the dissolution of the procedural story confounds any expectations of orderliness we might have and plunges us into bewildering existential territory.
The immense twilit landscape of the film, a primordial waste of rock and sea at the ends of the earth, is the natural haunt of the great whales (the Leviathan of the old times) which constantly beach in its waters. With chugging, urgent music by Philip Glass to accompany it, the vacant, disturbing landscape frames the action, sucking the narrative into its inscrutability, and setting the scene for an allegory of existence as old as time itself. Between these elemental visions the film unfolds, revealing a town swamped by the grey immensity around it, its buildings almost indistinguishable against the rock. A grand, incongruous church is hardly visible against snow-whitened, scoured rock, and we notice it fully only when the townspeople’s cars leave it in convoy after an evening service, passing over a lighted bridge over an inlet; or the ruined shell of an apse remaining from an old church, lit by the nocturnal fires of the disaffected who gather to drink there. The minimalist narrative is linked by a series of car journeys through the hidden recesses of the town and landscape, and a few important incidents flesh out what little action is necessary to precipitate Kolia’s fall. At some point, all three of the family individually approach the shore of the great ocean, as we encounter evidence of Leviathan: a great, bleached whale’s skeleton and a momentary breaching of a living whale, both appearances associated with emotional crisis. Where the Leviathan lives is the place of engulfment and death, the shore the place where we falter as the world of rock and certainty confronts the mysteries of the ocean.
The film is also framed with the delivery, in staccato fashion, of two legal judgements which, whilst terribly binding, do nothing to recognize and address the corruption and injustice that lie behind them. These judgements link to a religious undercurrent in the film, represented by the local priest and the clergy of the church, who pontificate on the mysteries of God’s will for us. In an exchange with the priest, Kolia is advised to look to God’s servant Job, who suffered terrible privation at God’s hands before having all restored to him through an ultimately unquestioning faith in the Divine will. The mysterious ways of God and the inability of man to question them are reiterated towards the end of the film in a glittering service in the richly endowed church, attended by the bishop and the good folks of the town, the mayor and his family leading lights of the congregation.
The biblical Job was not content to accept the afflicting power and mystery of God and imagined putting God on trial, so that the Deity might explain his ways to the poor man, metaphorically reducing the mystery of human suffering to a legal definition of guilt or innocence. In the forty-first chapter of the Book of Job we encounter the Leviathan, a monstrous sea-creature, a counterpart of the land beast Behemoth (both counterparts of part-animal Satan), embodying an unassailable chaos on earth: the Leviathan “Beholds everything that is high; He is king over all proud beasts”; the beast is so mighty that even the gods are overwhelmed by the sight of it. No one can stand before it; no one under the whole heaven can confront it and be safe. In the complete absence of redress, no answer from God to Job, no construct of reason, can convince us that the cosmos of suffering makes intellectual sense. As the priest implies to Kolia, only a pious life which accepts that the Divine mystery passes all understanding will protect him. Otherwise, he will drown in the agony of injustice perpetrated by the Leviathan, which foments corruption and destroys faith. We must find a way to live with Leviathan and his chaos. As we learn from the non-canonical Book of Enoch [58,6], only at the end of the world, when the Son of Man shall sit in judgement over all creatures, “when the darkness shall be destroyed, and the light established for ever”, will Leviathan and Behemoth fall, to be carved up and eaten.
Leviathan presents us head-on with the divine mystery of suffering. Just as Job will approach ultimately the Divine presence through an extremity of suffering, so Kolia, if he is able to survive his misfortunes, must find another way other than an appeal to the law. The crass, overwhelming injustice of the story, epitomised by the chaos of Kolia’s life and the organized thuggery of his nemesis, is not redressed for us either. We wait in vain for a dramatic mechanism that sweeps away suffering and punishes the wrongdoer; that it does not come is an agony, brought to a high point of pain by the presence of the complacent, cruel mayor and his family in the church. In leaving us profoundly disturbed, Zvyagintsev’s film hits home: the Leviathan lays us low in so far as we fail to stop trying to make sense of what has happened. Moreover, there are no clear battle-lines of wrongdoing and affliction in Leviathan: Kolia is perhaps as much an agent of his own destruction as he is a victim of the mayor’s machinations: his sufferings in great part emanate from his own anger, from his casual cruelty, from his obsessive attachment to his family home (Dmitri’s pleas to him to leave fall on deaf ears); pride and stubbornness entrap Kolia, making him an easy picking for the mayor, whose Leviathan-like ability to crush others and take what he wants is unassailable, beyond the redress of the law. Job comes to have all restored to him only when he begins to have true faith in an inscrutable Deity and ceases to believe that justice on this earth is possible.
Some commentators have seen Leviathan as a sour commentary on Putin’s Russia, as legal processes and church orthodoxy reinforce corrupt practices rather than vanquishing them. The film certainly has a political resonance. It is, however, in its preparedness to tackle one of the knottiest existential questions of faith through stark storytelling that makes it so potent and memorable.