(Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014) 140 minutes


Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky,
  Sergey Melkumov
Screenplay: Oleg Negin,
  Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman
Editor: Anna Mass
Music: Andrey Dergachev, Philip Glass
Aleksey Serebryakov (Nikolay 'Kolia')
Elena Lyadova (Lilya)
Vladimir Vdovichenkov (Dmitri)
Roman Madyanov (Vadim Sheleviat)
Anna Ukolova (Angela)
Aleksey Rozin (Pacha)
Sergey Pokhodaev (Roma)
Sergey Pokhodaev (Bishop)

Reviews and notes

2014 Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Wellington, Sarajevo, Gindou, Telluride, Toronto, Vancouver, Busan, Haifa, London, Gent, Morelia, Vienna, Abu Dhabi, São Paulo, Thessaloniki, Sevilla, Ljubljana, Taipei, Singapore
2015 Palm Springs, Beijing, Duhok, Bengaluru

It’s a contemporary Russian tale, set on the shores of the Barents Sea, about the unholy powers of the state and the church bearing down on one man, Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and his family, after he dares to challenge an attempt by the local mayor, Vadim (Roman Maydanov), to take his home from him. The film’s title borrows from that of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s greatest work and helps itself to his view that life would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ without good government and an organised society. It’s a tragedy with a hint of black comedy that moves at its own, sometimes surprising, pace and rhythm, and it lands a bruising punch on modern Russia… Like Elena before it, this is a parable, but it’s a grander affair unafraid to wander down some unusual paths with all the detail and density of a great novel.
- David Calhoun, Time Out.

A journey by car in an Andrey Zvyagintsev film is typically something to be dreaded. His masterful 2003 debut The Return hinges on a long and traumatic road trip; its 2007 follow-up The Banishment opens with a vehicle being driven in haste by a man who is in the process of losing an awful lot of blood. No one could be blamed, then, for fearing the worst in his latest picture, Leviathan. After shots of waves lashing rocks under the gaze of a mountainous landscape, we see a man, Kolia, driving through the grey light to collect his friend Dmitri from the train station.

Later there will indeed be a suspenseful car journey, but for now any tension is restricted to legal matters: Dmitri is a Moscow lawyer preparing to fight Kolia’s corner against the corrupt mayor, Vadim. The latter is trying to snatch from Kolia the coastal plot on which he has built the house where he lives with his wife and child. Over the subsequent 140 minutes, the class tensions of Zvyagintsev’s Elena (2011) combine with the domestic angst of The Banishment to produce a film that is more troubling and ambitiously scaled than either.

If the biblical connotations of the title suggest drama of the highfalutin variety, the perspective offers a worm’s-eye view. From the grimly hilarious court appeal, in which the particulars are read by a judge in a one-take breakneck monologue that leaves no room for breath, let alone interjection, there is never any likelihood that Kolia will triumph against the system. (The movie may be bleak but it is also surprisingly abundant and nuanced in its use of humour.) That title, after all, refers not only to the whales glimpsed in the Barents Sea – or to their cavernous skeletons, among which Kolia’s son wanders. It applies also (as it does in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 book of the same name, alluded to in the film) to the monstrous forces of government against which men such as Kolia, compared specifically by the town priest to Job, can only offer stoical resignation.

The pleasure of the film lies in its forensic skill at unpicking the intersecting layers of governmental corruption and calumny that doom the working class from the outset. There would be no mistaking Zvyagintsev’s hitherto opaque political allegiances, even if one only had the target-practice scene to go on. Having exhausted their supply of empty beer bottles, a shooting party turns to framed portraits of Russian leaders. Vladimir Putin is conspicuous by his absence. “It’s too early for the current ones,” says the policeman leading the shoot. “Let them ripen on the walls.” But a scene in which Putin’s image watches sinisterly over an exchange between Vadim and Dmitri, not to mention a later glimpse on a television screen of the words ‘Pussy Riot’, leave no doubt as to the filmmaker’s sympathies.

Kolia may ask, pleadingly, “Why, Lord?” during a moment of suffering, but religion offers neither answers nor hope. Indeed, it is a priest who expressly persuades Vadim to stick to his guns in the land dispute and to regard his own power as synonymous with the divine one.

Mapping this corroded moral structure in script form is something at which Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin excel. They may resort at times, both here and in The Banishment, to the use of the wife figure as a repository for pain rather than a character in her own right. But it would be churlish to dispute the crushing logic, the symbiotic inevitability, that underpins every plot-point, however minor.

Zvyagintsev’s talents extend far beyond that. What makes him an artist rather than simply a craftsman is his ability to express in visual and aural terms the themes and tensions that drive the narrative. Philip Glass’s music is imposing enough, even without knowing that it has been transplanted from his 1983 opera Akhnaten, which explored power and religion through the story of the pharaoh who pioneered monotheism.

Coupled with the dusky cinematography of Mikhail Krichman, the effect is at once breathtaking and oppressive. The majority of the picture, whether interior or exterior, has been lit and shot to create pools of darkness in the foreground (in some scenes, the actors are reduced almost to silhouettes). Illumination does exist in this world – the mountains in the distance are often streaked with sunlight. In common with hope and comprehension, that illumination lies stranded forever in the distance, frustratingly beyond the reach of Kolia and his woebegone countrymen.
- Ryan Gilbey, Sight & Sound, December 2014.

Here Be Monsters

Leviathan Andrey Zvyagintsev's tense drama about a man struggling to save his family home from a tyrannical mayor in a village on the Barents Sea, offers a savage portrait of the corruption and lawlessness endemic in contemporary Russian society.
By Ian Christie.

Leviathan has appeared in many guises down the ages. After a striking debut as a biblical monster in the Book of Job, it doubles as Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost and provides the arresting title of Thomas Hobbes's 17th-century treatise on political theory. Later, and more literally, it's Melville's great whale, the hero of countless comics and pop songs, and even the title of a novel by Paul Austen. But just what kind of monster is it in Andrey Zvyagintsev's imposing fourth feature?

There are certainly whales, both in Russia's Arctic Barents Sea and on its debris-strewn coast, which is the film's setting. But this is not a tale of hardy fisherfolk, even if one of the main characters works in a cannery. As in all of Zvyagintsev's films, its focus is on a tightly knit web of troubled family relations.

Kolia meets his friend off the train; a friend who once served under him in the army, we learn, but who is now a seemingly successful lawyer in Moscow. Dmitri has come to help Kolia in the final stage of his legal battle to keep hold of the wooden house that has been in his family for generations and overlooks the town.

The battle has almost certainly already been lost, however, as Dmitri warns Kolia before a court appearance of farcical formality. The town's mayor, a bloated tyrant, has his eye on the site for his own corrupt purposes, so no appeal to law or sentiment is likely to succeed - unless, that is, Dmitri can dish enough dirt on the mayor to force a deal, and then manage to survive the consequences. Meanwhile Kolia's younger wife, stepmother to his rebellious son, watches warily as the stakes escalate.

A family apparently at peace, but still disturbed by unhealed traumas from the past is what we've come to expect from Zvyagintsev. In his haunting debut, The Return (2003), a long-absent father took his sons on a mysterious trip to the coast; while in The Banishment (2007), set in a composite, deliberately non-specific landscape, a man and woman struggle after her confession of infidelity. With his third film, Elena (2011), Zvyagintsev moved closer to the social reality of contemporary Russia, as a woman is driven to murder her wealthy husband in order to secure an inheritance for her son from a previous relationship. Leviathan manages, more successfully, to balance the universality the director has always striven for with a brilliantly etched microcosm of the lawlessness that grips Russia today, where patronage, power and profiteering are closely intertwined.

Zvyagintsev has already suffered (and probably benefited too) from the near-inevitable comparisons with Tarkovsky. Stately, 'slow' by some standards, and relentlessly solemn, his films propose serious themes. These are definitely more Dostoevskian than Chekhovian, and indeed the director has obligingly quoted the author of Crime and Punishment at a festival screening of Leviathan: "Only through the fantastic can you get to the depth of truth." In fact, there seems relatively little fantasy in the tightly wound plotting of the new film, which shows just how terrifyingly anarchic even the farthest corners of Russia can be today. The mayor meets his clients and berates his underlings beneath a portrait of Putin, just as his predecessors in the Soviet era would have done beneath a portrait of Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev.

The autocratic power he wields is also similar to that of his forerunners, and there are echoes in Leviathan of some brave older challenges to Soviet complacency, such as Abdrashitov's A Train Has Stopped (1982) and Klimov's Farewell (1983). The wall of provincial silence that Abdrashitov's investigator meets after a train crash and Klimov's elegy for a village about to be flooded in the name of progress both prefigure the closed, hierarchical world portrayed in Leviathan. Except, as Zvyagintsev has said in an interview with Anne Thompson, the current situation may be harder to fathom and to fight: "Imagine a situation where I work for a firm which belongs to a larger holding group which belongs to a certain person in turn. I don't need to be told how to vote. I automatically assume my vote has to align with whatever the wishes are of the larger thing that ultimately I belong to."

What happens when individuals resist the pressure to bow to corrupt local officialdom was also the theme of Boris Khlebnikov's ironically titled A Long and Happy Life (2013), similarly filmed in the far north, near Murmansk. There, an idealistic city-dweller takes over the running of a former collective farm and appears to win the support of his workers when the call comes to sell out, only to discover that everyone has their price in today's Russia. But here, some caution is needed. Anyone trying to diagnose the state of Putin's Russia from a handful of films should pause and reflect how reliably, for instance, Britain's cinema portrays the moral and political climate of the country.

There is indeed much more to Leviathan than its portrayal of cronyism and the misuse of public power – which is far from unique to post-Soviet Russia. One aspect, however, which is defiantly Russian is the institution of a hunting trip as a barely disguised excuse to do some serious drinking. Celebrated in Aleksandr Rogozhkin's domestic hit comedy Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995) and its sequels, this custom provides Leviathan, with both an episode of wry comedy, when one of the 'hunters' opens up with an automatic assault rifle, and the framing of the emotional vortex that will tear Kolia's fragile family apart.

Less familiar – indeed conspicuously missing from most recent Russian films – is the growing importance of the Orthodox church in contemporary Russia. The church makes a number of appearances throughout Leviathan and plays a more complex role than some critics have implied. Certainly the senior cleric we see as a confidant of the mayor seems not only to be comfortable with earthly power but to embody the conservative vision of 'holy Russia' that lashed out after the 2012 Pussy Riot protest in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, itself a showcase for the new church-state alliance. There's a distant echo of the great confrontation between Eisenstein's Tsar Ivan and his former friend Kolychev, now a disapproving archbishop, when Zvyagintsev's mayor bows to the bishop's insistence on being guided by God in his affairs. But there is also another aspect of the church's presence in this depressed village, perhaps reflecting the director's own professed faith. As Kolia's woes multiply, he encounters a priest buying bread in the local supermarket, apparently to distribute to the poor, and this – distinctly Dostoevskian – encounter reinforces the film's underlying theme.

Zvyagintsev's intriguing title, we are told, is both a reference to the sea-monster evoked by God in his final speech to Job, and to Hobbes's defence of the social contract, written during the English Civil War. Kolia, suffering a series of unwarranted misfortunes, has been compared to a latter-day Job, although this analogy seems sketchy at best. The core idea of an ordinary citizen driven to desperate measures by injustice seems to draw on a combination of Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas, based on the true story of a 16th-century German rebel against authority, and the real-life tale of Marvin Heemeyer, described by Zvyagintsev as "a Colorado man who was a welder and owned an automotive repair shop, who went on a rampage with a tractor in 2004 after the local authorities gave permission to construct a factory that blocked the entrance to his shop. He bulldozed the town hall, the factory and other buildings, then killed himself."

Kolia behaves neither like Job, Kohlhaas nor Heemeyer, indicating that these were only starting points for a story that is certainly not confined to any single culture – it fuels Jia Zhangke's explosive A Touch of Sin, another recent protest against corrupt power - but which Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin have given a strong sense of Russian abjection. And of all the references invoked, the most relevant is surely Hobbes's argument that only "that great Leviathan called a common-wealth or state" in which all play their part responsibly, can protect the individual from a life that is otherwise, in the famous phrase, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".

The succession of Zvyagintsev's titles alone points to an eschatological bent and a Tarkovskian desire to create parables. The father of The Return is rhymed visually with Mantegna's The Dead Christ while the title of The Banishment refers to Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and in it there are two Leonardo references - a jigsaw puzzle of The Annunciation, and a photograph of the drawing of St Anne and Mary, which Zvyagintsev drew attention to in an interview with James Norton as one "I'm unhappy that nobody has so far noticed". Elena, apparently standing apart from this theme, was originally devised in response to an invitation to contribute to a group of films dealing with apocalypse - so we may perhaps read it as a kind of domestic apocalypse, in which the wife destroys the family in order to save it.

Leviathan once again asks us to think beyond the film's narrative, to ponder the allegorical allusions (encouraged by the poster image, showing a whale's skeleton on a beach), and no doubt to see Kolia and his family as tragic victims of a corrupt polity. But Zvyagintsev is less a philosopher or a social critic – the film received state funding and has been cleared for release in Russia, despite recent legislation against swearing that seemed to threaten it – than a powerful director of actors and creator of incomparable filmic landscapes. All the actors in Leviathan are outstanding, with the central four – Alexsey Serebryakov as the increasingly tormented Kolia, Vladimir Vdovichenkov as his friend Dmitri, Elena Lyadova as Lilya and Roman Madyanov as the bullying mayor Vadim – surrounded by a larger cast of supporting players than hitherto in Zvyagintsev's work.

After the elaborate artificiality of The Banishment and the predominantly urban realist setting of Elena, Leviathan comes back to the elemental landscape and postindustrial seashore of The Return and, crucially, to the houses that have been at the heart of his vision. Kolia's wooden house is the centre of his life and a link with Russia's past, now being destroyed in pursuit of profit and ostentation. We know that The Sacrifice is one of Zvyagintsev's key referents, with its focus on an archetypal house, but there are many other domestic spaces that make 'home' a central Tarkovskian theme. With Kolia's embattled home at the visual, emotional and political centre of Leviathan, Zvyagintsev has created a film that may speak as eloquently to his fellow Russians as Tarkovsky's Mirror once did, and its final fate may serve as an apt metaphor for the condition of that enigmatic land.
- Sight & Sound, December 2014.

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