Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) takes place in a desolate Russian coastal town where dreams die. Throughout the film, we are shown a massive whale skeleton that rests on the shore next to broken down boats, which symbolizes the Russian government’s neglect of the townspeople. The residents have lived here for years, and they won’t leave because they don’t know any other life. Many of them built their houses from scratch with their bare hands and raised families here. To them, this place is their birthright; it’s just a shame that they lack the power to stand up to the government, which is determined to drive them out of their town and take their land.
The film opens in the middle of one of these battles. Auto mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) by the Barents Sea. The corrupt mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has been granted the court’s permission to demolish Kolya’s house and take ownership of his auto repair shop. In an effort to fight back, Kolya enlists help from his old friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now an important attorney in Moscow. Dmitriy believes that their last best chance is to blackmail Vadim with damaging personal information.
Despite this intriguing premise, the film is void of thrills, and is instead a darkly comic study of an indifferent leadership’s impact on individuals. This is what happens, Zvyagintsev tells us, when corrupted officials disregard the concerns of their citizens. As the film progresses, the lives of the main characters unfold in unpredictable ways, and yet it’s no surprise to discover that this doesn’t end happily ever after for any of them.
Western critics have praised Leviathan for its willingness to confront Putin’s corrupt regime. Vadim, the film’s antagonist, has a picture of Putin hanging on his office wall, and whenever Koyla and Dmitriy encounter a government official, they are treated with hostility. Zvyagintsev is not shy about his disapproval of his government, and in one insightful interview with The Guardian, he bluntly proclaims that “living in Russia is like being in a minefield.” We must remember that countries like Russia often imprison artists that speak out, and given the risk, Zvyagintsev’s defiance deserves our respect.
However, if Leviathan were merely an exposé of Putin’s regime, it would hardly be the talk of the town. The reason why the film has caught on with critics and cinephiles is because it is extremely well-made. The mise-en-scène is particularly breathtaking; Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography captures the devastation of the town with captivating wide shots. Andrey Ponkratov’s production design perfectly balances the extravagance of Vadim’s environment with the emptiness of Koyla’s.
In addition to the film’s meticulous design, the performances successfully sell the material. The weary look in Serebryakov’s eyes as he conveys Koyla’s frustration is heartbreaking. We see that this man has given all that he has to fight for his survival, and the hopelessness begins to weigh on him. Lyadova is equally good as Lilya, especially toward the end when she contemplates a crucial decision that will change her husband’s fate. The standout, however, is Madyanov, who has a lot of fun with the role of Vadim. He’s a ruthless villain, as well as a drunken buffoon, and Madyanov wisely takes both sides of the personality to the extreme so that Vadim is simultaneously terrifying and pitiful to watch.
Admittedly, the film lacks entertainment value, and a number of viewers will likely be bored. Like Zvyagintsev’s last film Elena (2011), Leviathan is best admired for its craftsmanship. It’s not incoherent like many art films, and there are certainly characters to root for and conflicts at stake, but at 141 minutes it can be a slog to sit through. Still, Zvyagintsey’s satirical tone rescues it from monotony and infuses it with a refreshing sense of humor. The film plays like a Kafkaesque nightmare, and despite the bleak subject matter, Zvyagintsey can’t help but poke fun at the absurdity of Koyla’s situation. If you combine Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and throw in some biblical references to Job and philosophical references to Thomas Hobbes, you’d get Leviathan.
The DVD comes with an informative commentary by Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky, and a behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the making of the film. These aren’t the greatest bonus features in the world, but they should be useful to viewers that aren’t riveted by the film and still want to understand its significance. It’s common for viewers to initially dislike important, critically-acclaimed films like Leviathan, only to then appreciate them after they learn about their historical and cultural context.
It’s too early to tell if Leviathan will influence other Russian filmmakers to tackle Putin’s regime. In theory, the success of Zvyagintsev’s film in the West, as evinced by the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, should encourage Russian directors to follow in Zvyagintsev’s path. However, Leviathan has been met with much resistance in Russia, and there’s a sense that Russia’s Oscar Committee will consider less critical films for the nomination in the future. After the controversy, it will most likely be difficult for Russian filmmakers to maintain successful careers at home if their films challenge Putin’s nationalist agenda. However, regardless of what happens, there’s no denying that Leviathan is a profoundly personal work by one of Russia’s most gifted filmmakers.