Andrey Zvyagintsev's sprawling "Leviathan" is depressing, slyly comedic and inimitably Russian
Depressing, slyly comedic and inimitably Russian, Andrey Zvyagintsev's sprawling Leviathan is perpetually grey, both in palette and plot. A modern day interpretation of the Bible's most famous parable, the tale of Job, Leviathan is a stinging rebuke of the systemic corruption that underpins modern Russia, told through the collapse of a family and the downward spiral of its patriarch.
A local handyman, Kolya's (Aleksei Serebryakov) private holding on the North Russian coast has miraculously survived in his family's since 1925, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, and has been maintained by each generation of his clan ever since. That is, until the unscrupulous and corrupt local mayor seeks to repurpose it, with the assistance of a coterie of compromised public officials under his manipulation and under the mentoring of a morally questionable priest of the Russian Orthodox church. As Kolya, his family (a maladjusted son with a previous partner and his second wife Lilya, played by Elena Lyadova), and his lawyer and childhood friend Dimitri (Vladimir Vlodichenkov), come up against a growing mountain of bureaucratic terror in the form of illegitimate arrests, the mayor's mafia and the psychological strain on his family begin to grow.
Leviathan is tightly plotted, a hunter's collection of smoking Chekhov's guns – some of them literally guns – that fire at unexpected moments. On top of this it has the advantage of the phenomenal imagery of its coastal location, lit in various shades of grey, which is unveiled – in true Russian form – through a collection of slowly edited long-shots with detailed composition. If the plot becomes too detailed and winding, or (intentionally) lacks clarity by the time of its tragic denouement, there's always the rich cinematography and Phillip Glass soundtrack to admire.
Where the comedic streak of Leviathan shines through is in its sharp dialogue and a series of clever visual gags (it bares some resemblance in its dark comedy to the Coen Brothers' underrated 2009 take on the Job narrative, A Simple Man). For example, in a pivotal scene, shattered portraits of ex-Soviet and Russian leaders are appropriated as shooting targets, with one vodka-drunk reveller demanding that he get Yeltsin. Putin's picture is removed, of course, for the reason that “historical reflection” is needed. The comedy serves not just the purpose of laughs, but also the propulsion of the film's points. In an earlier scene a stark portrait of Putin lies behind the desk of the film's corrupt antagonist, while the priest of the local Orthodox Church advises the mayor to act with force against his adversaries in one breath, before philosophising to Kolya over the fate of the biblical Job in another.
If the Soviet state under Stalin could have been described as a 'Limping Behemoth', the counterpart to the biblical Leviathan in the Book of Job, it's possible that the powerful, restrictive and deeply hierarchical Leviathan (in the Hobbesian sense) could be used to describe Putin's Russia. It may be a family drama, but Leviathan is expansive, a detailed rumination on the nature of power, honesty, morality and, eventually, truth. In 2014 of all years, it asks the question of whether this last value exists at all in the modern Russian state. See it now.
4.5 Chekhov's Guns out of 5