Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 20 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
1 Kings 21:2-3
Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Oscar nominated film is a fascinating visual parable about greed, corruption and power, as well as a polemic against the church’s complicity whereby it forsakes its prophetic mission. The title has obvious references to the biblical book of Job and to Thomas Hobbes, the author of the philosophical and political book of the same name. The Englishman’s observation that life “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” will certainly be true for characters in this film. Some critics have drawn similarities between it and the Coen Brother’s film based on Job, A Serious Man. To that I would add Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, possibly because I have just written a new review of the classic, which deals with a similar theme of the unfairness of life–the wicked and unworthy prospering, and the good failing to achieve their dreams. And delving further into the Bible, I think that there is also a similarity with the story of King Ahab and Naboth, as well as with Job.
The story is set in a small fishing town on the Kola Peninsula in the northwest of Russia where auto mechanic Kolya (Alexei Serebryakov) lives in the home owned by his family since his grandfather’s time, with his beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhadaev). Kolya returns home from the train station with his old army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), now a successful Moscow lawyer. Dmitri quickly becomes aware of the tension between Lilya and her stepson, the latter obviously not having welcomed her into the family. But the visitor’s immediate concern is his friend’s legal case that has brought him to town. The corrupt mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov) has been attempting to buy out at a ridiculously low price Kolya’s land. Ostensibly for civic use, the mayor actually is planning to demolish the house and build a palatial home for himself. The property offers the area’s best view of the Barents Sea and coastline, so the town has issued an order forcing Kolya to relinquish the property.
The local court, obviously under the control of Vadim, has ruled against Kolya’s counter-suit, the clerk, in a black comedy scene speed reading the decision, droning on and on as Kolya listens helplessly. Thus his lawyer intends to seek more money. Kolya, very hot-tempered, does not want this, preferring to hold onto his family heritage, but Dmitri works to get him to see reason. He is convinced that he can extract from the mayor the true worth of the property because he has gathered together a dossier of documents about the politican’s corrupt past that would ruin the man’s career were they to be leaked. He tells Vadim the dossier is “a horror movie with you in the lead.”
Dmitri, however, underestimates their opponent, who turns out to be not only corrupt but also willing to use brutal methods to gain his goal. The contemptuous politician regards Kolya and such lower class men as insects, easily crushed. In one scene we see the outwardly pious Vadim seek advice from his priest. The cleric speaks about God and his plans, saying, “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.” The Mayor, pleased, responds, “And so, it suits Him?” This is all that the mayor needs, eventually calling in the thugs (after the lawyer tries to blackmail him).
Meanwhile, Dmitri complicates matters by giving in to his attraction to the beautiful Lilya, which he consummates at a hunting outing with some local cops and their families. We assume this because we are not actually shown the affair, only that the hunting party ends when the adults are told that Kolya is choking his wife and they run up the hill to intervene.
Matters at Kolya’s home are therefore tense, with Roma declaring his hatred for Lilya. Even though he is hotheaded, Kolya has forgiven his repentant wife, and asks his son to do so also. The sultry boy, often sneaking off to join his friends to talk and drink together in an old ruined church, refuses. Kolya, already a heavy drinker, spends more and more time alone with his vodka. Lilya is troubled, taking the bus each morning to her job at the local fish factory. She refuses to share her feelings with her best friend Angela (Anna Ukolova). Perhaps filled with guilt—the film is ambiguous at several points—she leaves their marriage bed early one morning to wander along the top of the cliff overlooking the sea. Earlier we had been shown the bleached bones of a whale that had been stranded on the beach. This is the creature underlying the Biblical authors’ concept of Leviathan. Now she sees a live whale swimming in the bay below her. She then makes a decision—or we assume she does—that will have far reaching consequences on her husband, her son, and even the mayor.
Zvyagintsev’s film, as dark as Crimes & Misdemeanors, but with less humor, offers people of faith an opportunity to explore the theme of theodicy and the complicity of the church in supporting values and systems that Christ would repudiate. The parallel with the story in 1 Kings is easy to spot, Mayor Vadim being a good stand-in for King Ahab, and Kolya and his property with its million dollar view of the sea representing Naboth’s vineyard. No Queen Jezebel is needed, Vadim being twice as venal as the King of Israel. If anything, the priest, supporting the Mayor’s obvious land grab, makes up for the lack of Jezebel—it is his encouragement that leads the mayor to use brutal means for running Kolya’s lawyer out of town. The big difference between film and the Biblical story, of course, is that there is no Elijah that calls the mayor to justice. It should have been the church, but as in the days of Czarist Russia, the Orthodox Church is in bed with those holding power. Surely a black comedy scene is the homily preached by the priest near the end of the film. With the mayor listening in the congregation, the priest’s affirmation, “Freedom is knowing God’s truth,” sounds like some joke mocking God’s word!
We could consider that the role of Elijah here is taken on by Andrei Zvyagintsev himself, who takes a great risk in criticizing political corruption, especially in the delightful scene in which Kolya and his family join their police friends on an outing involving target practice. One of them sets up portraits of ex-Soviet leaders to use for targets, and Kolya asks if they have any portraits of more recent officials. The cop replies that the present one “can ripen a little longer on the wall.” He is referring, of course, to Putin, whose picture we see on the wall of the mayor’s office—and I believe on that of the courtroom as well.
Along with its subtitles, the director’s languid pace, so typical of European filmmaking and antithetical to the Hollywood style, makes the film a challenge for American viewers. However, the film’s greatness makes it eminently worthwhile for anyone who wants to keep abreast of world cinema and to see how film can challenge our values and outlook. In Russia itself it looks like the authorities are regarding the film as an attack on, not just a challenge to, the government: a report by Anna Dolgov in the Jan. 15 issue of the New York Times states that in reaction to this work, “Russian films may be denied a distribution license if they are deemed to undermine the country’s ‘national unity,’ according to new regulations that critics have denounced as an attempt to make filmmakers toe the Kremlin line.” She goes on to report that the version of Leviathan to be shown in Russian theaters will be one with its criticism of government edited out. In the light of the recent murder of Putin’s critic and political opponent Boris Nemtsov, there is reason to be concerned for the welfare of director Abderrahmane Sissako, especially should he decide to make another film revealing the corruption of the Russian political and religious systems.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables.