'Leviathan' goes deep on man versus state in modern Russia

In 'Leviathan,' everyman Kolya is both a man and the yoked soul of Russia fighting for its life in an accusatory universe. 

Anna Matveeva/Sony Pictures Classics/AP
In this image released by Sony Pictures Classics, Sergey Pokhodaev appears in a scene from 'Leviathan.'

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” is as heavy with symbolism as its title, and yet it also holds you viselike in the raw grip of the real. The film’s furious mixture of the metaphoric and the actual is quintessentially Russian. Without ever losing its dramatic bearings, the film takes a small-scale conflict in a remote northern township on the Arctic Coast and, by implication, expands it to include all ofRussia.

Car-shop owner Kolya (Andrei Serebryakov) lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova) and teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), from an earlier marriage. He works in a small garage adjoining the scenically situated house where he has lived for much of his life. This property is now under seige from the corrupt local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov), whose claims of eminent domain over land and home are in the final stages of a court battle Kolya is primed to lose.

To fight the case, Kolya invites up an old army buddy, “Dima,” (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a powerful Moscow attorney. Dima digs up some highly incriminating (and unspecified) dirt on Vadim and assumes that the threat of its revelation will end the onslaught. Instead, the mayor and his goons intensify their vendetta to unspeakable limits. Rarely has a movie so resoundingly anatomized the brutal consequences of institutionalized thuggery.

In a director’s note included in the film’s program notes, Zvyaginstev, who co-wrote the film with Oleg Negin, wrote: “The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else.” Zvyaginstev, unlike most other celebrated contemporary Russian directors, grew up in the provinces, and perhaps this is why “Leviathan” has such a fierce feeling for rural existence. Kolya’s loss of home isn’t merely metaphoric – it’s startlingly real. This man is like a jagged outcropping of the landscape. To be uprooted, for him, is to be more than dispossessed. It means to be denatured entirely.

The Leviathan of the film’s title is a double reference: to the fearsome sea serpent in the Book of Job and to Thomas Hobbes’s treatise about the supremacy of sovereign power. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film (which won the best screenplay award in Cannes), Kolya reaches out to a Russian Orthodox priest for guidance, and the priest, who is in cahoots with the mayor, quotes from the Book of Job: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord?...Will he speak to you soft words? Will he make a covenant with you?” The corruption Kolya faces is total.

The image of the carcass of a beached whale in “Leviathan” is too heavy-handed, but many of the obvious touches are rightly in-your-face. It makes sense that the mayor would have a photo of Putin above his desk, or that, in a festive shooting party outing, the rifle targets should be everyone from Lenin to Gorbachev. The symbols in this movie draw blood because they are drenched in the lifeblood of the Russian people.

Kolya, a boozer and a brawler, is far from a saint, and the movie does not attempt to martyr him unduly. His sufferings are without a religious aspect. When asked if he believes in God, he responds that he “believes in facts.” The universe of “Leviathan” is one in which thuggery has displaced God. The Orthodox priest can say, with full rectitude, that he is “doing God’s work.”

For all his failings, Kolya, in the movie’s terms, is a natural man, and so his fate in fighting his implacable enemies in the state has a mythic resonance. The movie would not be as powerful as it is if he were haloed. It is because Kolya is earthy and jagged-edged that his predicament takes on a larger meaning. He is a man and he is also the yoked soul of Russia fighting for its life in an accusatory universe. “Leviathan” is, in the widest sense, a horror film. Grade: A (Rated R for language and some sexuality.)

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