Politics, corruption, religion and vodka dominate the grey landscape that is Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Leviathan (Levifan), a hefty film for both its 141-minute running time as well as its weighty material. Moving at a pace all its own, with knockout performances and stunning cinematography from Mikhail Krichman, Leviathan serves as a perfect example of a film that separates art house from mainstream. This isn’t a tale of the small guy that took on the autocratic state and won. The opportunity for this to be that movie is here, but it pushes well past that point, proving the metaphorical leviathan is far too cunning for such Hollywood-esque happy endings.
The story begins on the Barents Sea as we learn Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) is facing the prospect his business, home and land will be taken from him. The villain in this piece is Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov), the town’s corrupt mayor, whose decided the land would be much better off in his hands. Coming to Kolia’s help is Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), a friend and lawyer from Moscow, but after their appeal is denied they must resort to more aggressive tactics in hopes of keeping Kolia’s land in his hands or he, his wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and his son Roma (Serguei Pokhodaev) will be left with nothing.
The tone is menacing and it rarely lets up unless Kolia and his friends are blowing off some steam, but even in these instances ominous forces are working in the shadows. Kolia is up against a seemingly unbeatable giant and even as Dimitri’s confidence in his plan suggests they just might win, trouble is on the horizon in parts of his life he never expected.
There’s already been talk as to whether or not Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin intended the film to serve as a condemnation of Russia’s current government and while Zvyagintsev says the choice of setting is merely a result of “that’s all he knows”, it’s hard not to see it as a commentary on his home country. Nevertheless, the film still works as a story in which the weak are left to suffer under the mighty thumb of those above them, but the modern day political parallels make it all the richer. Additionally fascinating, is the thuggish nature of the antagonists and the way in which they use religion to give reason to their actions.
In a director’s note included with the press kit, Zvyagintsev makes note of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise, “Leviathan”, a title inspired by the Book of Job. Zvyagintsev has interpreted this story, setting out to ask a question he believes we will all one day face, that of whether we want to live as a slave or live free. Kolia faces this question in more ways than one, the first being whether he simply gives in to the government, the second asking whether he trusts his future in the hands of Dimitri and what it is he’ll lose in the process.
Leviathan is an example of masterclass filmmaking, but at the same time I have a hard time going head over heels for it. I wish I had the scholarly approach to past Russian work such as Dostoyevsky or the relationship with Andrei Tarkovsky so many other critics have chosen to compare this to, most notably The Sacrifice, which I’ve seen, but also felt a similar emotional distance from as I did Leviathan.
It’s easy to recognize the talent at work both in front and behind the camera, and I found the themes and story compelling, but it’s my lack of ability to recognize that final layer that would allow this film to firmly click into place. As much as I admire and respect the dark, moody and atmospheric qualities, the score from Philip Glass and truly love the final scene — “God sees everything” — I wasn’t able to fully give myself over.