I’ve just seen Andrey Zvyagintsev’s extraordinary film Leviathan. The movie got the best screenplay award at Cannes and has received ecstatic plaudits all round, and in my opinion it deserves them all. It’s a bleak, troubling, and haunting piece of work, one of those rare films that lingers in the mind long after you’ve seen it. On one level it’s an indictment of contemporary Russia. But it’s also a more universal meditation on individual powerlessness and state power – an intention reflected in the reference to Hobbes’ theory of the sovereign state and the social contract in the title.
Set in a small town on Russia’s northwest coast, the film tells the tragic tale of car mechanic and local handyman Kolya, whose life crumbles to pieces when the local gangster-mayor Vadim buys up his self-built house for a rock-bottom price. With the help of his lawyer-friend from Moscow Dimitri, Kolya struggles to prevent the sale, or at least get a better price for his land. But Dimitri has his own agenda regarding Kolya’s beautiful second wife Lilya, and to say things don’t turn out well doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Vadim is one of the nastiest characters to appear on the screen in a long time. Corrupt, ruthless, bullying and cunning by turns, he almost seems to sweat malice from every pore of his squat, fleshy body. To some extent he is the ‘leviathan’ of the title, and the archetypal post-Soviet gangster-predator, but it soon becomes clear that he is a product of a society that is institutionally configured to meet the needs of men like him, from corrupt cops and judges to local government officials.
Zvyagintsev has denied that his film is intended as an indictment of contemporary Russia, and has pointed out that it was inspired by a real life incident in the United States in 2004, in which a welder demolished various municipal buildings with a tank before killing himself, after he was the victim of a land expropriation.
Maybe so, but there is something disingenuous about these protestations, or maybe it’s just diplomacy, since 35 percent of the film’s budget came from the Russian Ministry of Culture. In any case, the film is a remorseless and pitiless analysis of the institutional failings of Russian society, through the prism of a small town.
Vadim may be a local tyrant, but the film places him within a long tradition of state oppression. In one of its rare moments of black humour, Kolya and his drunken mates use photographs of Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Stalin for target practice, and they might also have included the Tsar and Putin himself, whose photograph adorns Vadim’s office.
Because the clear suggestion in the film is that Vadim is the product of a system in which ordinary citizens are powerless before the state and have always been powerless. In a powerful scene in the early part of the film the drunken Vadim confronts the equally pissed Kolya and shrieks at him ‘ You people have no rights! You never had any!’
By ‘ you people’ Vadim clearly means all ordinary Russian citizens who are not directly connected to the ‘commonwealth’ which enables people like him to prey on them with absolute impunity, and with the full support of a corrupt judiciary.
With no possibility of confronting the powerful forces that oppress them and block them at every turn, Kolya and his friends are trapped in a situation of absolute powerlessness and absolute despair that Kafka’s Josef K would have been entirely familiar with. They eke out their lives as best they can, taking refuge in prodigious drinking bouts that almost make you want to shout at the screen to stop pouring vodka and get down to AA. Rarely have people drank so much or been drunk for so long or so miserably as the characters of Leviathan, who drain one bottle after another in an attempt to remain in a permanent, mind-numbing stupor.
To suggest that this has nothing to do with Russia or Vladimir Putin is nonsensical. Zvyaginstev also takes aim at one of the mainstays of Putin’s support – the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the key characters is a hypocritical priest who is almost as vile as Vladim himself, constantly mouthing religious homilies and platitudes while he cosies up to the mayor in search of what he and the church can get out of him.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film the priest delivers a sermon about ‘reawakening the soul of the Russian people’ and condemns the immoral forces that threaten Russia – in a clear reference to Pussy Riot. The camera pans out across faces lit up with rapt devotion that might be a tableau of ancient Mother Russia, until you see Vadim in the audience looking equally beatific and you realize that the church was built near Kolya’s demolished house as a result of the mayor’s largesse.
This might not be a masked punk band cavorting in a church, but it is a savagely ironic statement in any case. Within Leviathan there is also a very Russian and almost Dostoevskian lament for the absence of true religious values in contemporary Russian society – and the glaring contrast between the harsh sharkpool that Kolya inhabits and the biblical message of love and compassion.
Its best screenplay award notwithstanding, the images and cinematography are as much a part of this message as the story itself. The film is filled with astonishing widescreen images of the Russian coastline, of gutted boats, ruined churches and the skeleton of a large whale that echo the ruin that faces its central character.
All this is part of a breathtakingly ambitious and accomplished achievement that is long and slow, mysterious and enigmatic, but absolutely worth the effort, not only for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Russia, but because so many societies have their Kolyas and their Vadims, and because the general trend of 21st century politics so often seems to favour the latter.