Writers Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov
Runtime 141 mins
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, like its titular sea creature, has entered onto the cinematic scene, creating seismic waves of critical attention. At Cannes, the film picked up a nomination for the Palm d’Or, while Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin secured Best Screenplay, and at the London Film Festival it was awarded Best Film. Controversially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, it has already been chosen as Russia’s official entry for next year’s Oscars. In all, the film was an international hit, and justly, if surprisingly so.
Leviathan is an enthralling tragi-drama detailing coastal homeowner Kolya’s (Aleksey Serebryakov) legal battle against the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a man seeking to forcibly purchase his land. The story is a retelling of the Old Testament’s account of Job, with Kolya’s peaceful life and home being slowly (and literally) destroyed by different forms of corrupted authority, whether political, religious or societal. The film is unsubtle in its metaphorical significance, highlighting the inherent moral bankruptcy of modern Russian government. At one point, Pussy Riot are glimpsed at on the TV news and at another, the leading men go shooting using past portraits of Russian leaders (on being asked “Any current presidents?” Kolya’s friend replies “Not enough historical perspective”) for target practice. Finally, a portrait of Putin dominates the scenes set in the Mayor’s office, as he looms over the corrupt political transactions.
The film is spectacularly shot, utilising the vast landscape of the North Coast of Russia to create sublime panoramas that encompass the film’s thematic concerns of alienation, isolation and insignificance. The use of natural light locks you into either the early hours of a grey morning, or the deepest black nighttime skies, void of any human pollution. A great, beached whale carcass haunts the beach as a ghostly reminder of the oppressive forces of nature working against our protagonist, only here ‘nature’ is equated with corrupt authority. Kolya’s frailty is illustrated repeatedly in his engulfment within this grand landscape, his powerlessness emphasised by his physical inferiority to the natural environment as well as his political impotence.
Serebryakov shines as the ill-fated protagonist, his tragic descent into alcoholism acutely realised, but not without moments of melancholic humour too. In fact, perfectly observed dark humour punctuates the film throughout, normally due to the excessive alcohol intake (there is a large amount of fantastically unparalleled drunk acting here), which is at times overwhelmingly comic but always with a tainting poignancy. Madyanov is detestable as the selfish, alcoholic Mayor with no remorse, but again with a slight element of humour. It is through Madyanov’s character that the religious institutional criticism takes centre stage; frequent morally void conversations discussing God’s will for the Mayor’s reelection occur with a sinister overtone of inauthenticity as his Priest quells his fears, offering an intimate critique of the Russian Orthodox church. Although religion is present throughout the film, it is clear God is not.
Elena Lyadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov lead a tremendously authentic supporting cast, adding layers to the heavy realism of the piece. The film plays so seamlessly, you are at no point aware of its construction. Filmed on location with sweeping natural backdrops, flawless dialogue and impeccable acting allows an entirely immersive experience for the viewer. Furthermore, the tendency to omit vital scenes that remain inferred or ‘understood’ contributes to the film’s exhilarating pace, while its refusal to provide consistent or obvious dramatic gratification reinforces the idea of Leviathan as an epic of the everyday.
Zvyagintsev provides a thorough and tragic portrait of modern Russia, and its employment of archaic justifications for enforcing empty authority. All institutions are rendered faulty whether they be religious, political or even familial, and the purposeless caused by this is what makes Leviathan such a perfect and relevant modern tragedy.